Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Evening Celebrating 100 Years of Tennessee

(From Left to Right) Harris Yulin, Eli Wallach, Mercedes Ruehl
Courtesy: East Hampton Patch / Amy Tangel
As summer is running in full gear, I can't help but think back to last summer when I attended a magical theatrical evening celebrating 100 years of Tennessee.

I am a reporter and had the honor of covering Guild Hall's celebration of 100 years of Tennessee in East Hampton, NY last August.  "Tennessee at 100: Readings and Reminiscence Celebrating Tennessee Williams," was staged readings from Williams' essays, journal entries, short stories, and plays.

Eli Wallach, Mercedes Ruehl, Harris Yulin, Vincent Piazza, and Justine Lupe-Schomp starred in the show. When I arrived at the theatre, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was in East Hampton, at Guild Hall, at an event honoring Tennessee Williams; anybody could be there.

The week prior, I had been corresponding with the co-producer of the show, James Lawson. I asked the usher when I walked in the theatre if he knew where I could find Lawson, and he graciously went to alert him of my unimportant arrival.

Jim and I enthusiastically greeted each other, seeing it was our first time meeting in person. He quickly said to me that he was I glad I came, and thanked me for my press. He proceeded to tell me that he wished he had more time to chat and then pointed to a man behind us and said, "I have Edward Albee over there and I can't keep him waiting long, or he'll get restless." Edward Albee!

"Would you mind taking a moment to introduce me?" quickly came out of my mouth.

Without blinking, Jim walked me over. He introduced me to Albee as a writer who had been covering the event, and that he wanted me to meet him. I reached my hand out, as I couldn't think of what other social grace to do in such an unexpected situation and said, "Hello, Mr. Albee. It's an honor to meet you." As anti-climatic as this may sound, I will tell you with confidence that Albee's handshake sent electricity straight through my arm and right up to my star-struck mind.

You see, as I was shaking his hand, as stunned as I was, I still was quick enough on my toes in my mind to know that I was shaking the hand that has written some of the greatest American plays ever written. What would he be without his hand? Albee's hand, with a pen in it, or typing on a typewriter shaped his entire life, not to mention the theater world.

Albee, who was in attendance with Julian Schnabel, was gracious enough to pose for a photo for me. I was sure to take two shots, even though time was of the essence. One for the press, and one for me. Albee seemed to have fun with it too, otherwise why else would he feel the urge to give Schnabel the "bunnyears" in the middle of the shot?
Edward Albee & Julian Schnabel
Courtesy: East Hampton Patch / Amy Tangel
The performance was fabulous in my opinion. I felt like the actors made Tennessee come alive through their words. No costumes; no movement; no props; just words. Even when they read from Williams' journal entries they read in character as if they were Tennessee, mother, or Rose.

Mercedes Ruehl read with such passion and strength. She gave me chills and really stole the audience. Vincent Piazza (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") really resembled a young Tennessee, and when he spoke he captured a drive and vigor Tennessee seemed to have for writing in his youth. Harris Yulin spoke as Tennessee in his later years, and hearing his voice made me feel the exhaustion and sadness Tennessee seemed to be feeling towards the end. Justine Lupe-Schomp captured a delicate vulnerability that made me feel Rose's pain when she spoke.

Throughout the first three quarters of the performance I kept wondering where Eli Wallach was fitting in. Just when I thought the show was about to be over, and that there had been something that prevented Wallach from performing, two chairs were placed center stage and a young man escorted Wallach out from stage left. The audience roared with applause.

Wallach took a seat in the left chair and Lupe-Schomp took a seat on the right. They performed a staged reading of a scene from Mr. Paradise. The audience was silent and motionless. My heart was pounding. Wallach's performance was stunning. He spoke with more power and conviction than any other actor I have ever seen. Passion exuded his body from a still, sitting position. He rightfully so, received a standing ovation.

The show was over and they were about to close the curtain, when Wallach asked the stagehand for a microphone. The audience fell silent again. He lifted the microphone and put his hand over his heart. He looked out and simply said, "You were a pleasure."

No wonder Tennessee Williams loved him so.

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