June 22, 2011
Tennessee Williams was my first great love in the theater. I discovered him when I was 13 and looking for a monologue to perform for my audition to the High School of Performing Arts. I did Blanche’s “he was a boy just a boy” speech from A Streetcar Named Desire. I didn’t get in but I’ve never gotten over him.
So there was no question about my wanting to see One Arm, the new play that Moisés Kaufman has adapted for the stage from a never-produced screenplay that Williams wrote back in the ‘60s. And, call me a fool for love if you’d like, but seeing it made my heart ache for the pain and the loneliness that must have caused Williams to create it.
Williams based his screenplay on a short story of the same name that he wrote in 1942. Like his play Vieux Carré, the story draws on the time he lived in New Orleans and the down-and-out people he encountered there.
One Arm’s lost soul is a former boxer named Ollie Olsen (the surname is Winemiller in the short story) who tragically lost an arm and then spiraled down into a life of prostitution and crime. He is on death row when the play opens; the story of how he got there is told in flash-back scenes.
The familiar Williams themes of the desperate longing for love and the disillusionment that comes with depending on the kindness of strangers permeate the play. As do strains of the lyricism that sets Williams, whose centenary is being observed this year, apart from all other claimants to the title of America’s greatest playwright. Ollie, Williams wrote, “Looked like a broken statue of Apollo, and he also had the coolness and impassivity of a stone figure.” (Click here to read the entire short story.)
As is also usual with Williams, the work oozes with sexuality. But the sex here doesn’t hide behind metaphor: One Arm deals openly with gay themes and, in this production, is sometimes almost leering in its depiction of the interactions between Ollie and his customers.
I don’t know how explicit all of that was in the screenplay drafts that Williams reportedly kept revising right up to the time of his death in 1983. But it is clear that Kaufman has brought his own highly-theatrical sensibility—and storytelling techniques—to One Arm.
A narrator introduces the play, occasionally reads excerpts from the screenplay, including stage directions, and portrays a writer—clearly based on Williams—who befriends Ollie. In other stage business, the pick-ups by the johns are ritualized; as is the murder.
But it works. And that’s largely because of Claybourne Elder’s courageous portrayal of Ollie. Playing a man with one arm isn’t that hard; Elder’s is visibly strapped to his body with a belt. But, while most of Williams’ protagonists leaven their tragedy with flashes of humor and wit, Ollie lacks all emotion. And apathy ain't easy to play. Yet Elder impressively overcomes that handicap and shows the repressed passions roiling inside Ollie (click here to read a great Q&A with the actor).
The other seven actors, all of whom double and triple in roles, are good too, particularly Larisa Polonsky, the sole woman in the show who is such a shape-shifter that I thought there were at least two actresses in the cast until the curtain call.
The strong acting is aided by Derek McLane’s broodingly beautiful set that, aided by David Lander’s nimble lighting, is convincing as Ollie’s jail cell, the navy barracks of his youth, a brothel where he works later, and the various apartments in which he has his liaisons.
Not everything works. Some of Shane Rettig’s sound design is a bit overly emphatic. A last minute epiphany isn’t totally believable. Still, nearly every review of One Arm, even the ones that don’t like it much, say this production, which is playing at the Acorn Theatre through July 2, is a must-see for Williams devotees. And it is.