Most fans of esteemed American playwright Tennessee Williams will quickly agree that his characters are among the most interesting aspects of his work. Unmistakably complex and often existing on the fringes of "acceptable society," they frequently feel more profoundly and see and understand much that is unseen by others. Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? pushes this idea with an interconnected narrative that blends the real and imagined in convincing fashion.
The primary story presents the three stages of woman: burgeoning sexuality; marriage and motherhood; and aging widow. There's a twist in the plot however, as Louise, the mother, is also a young widow. Louise is doing her best to maintain a proper household for herself and teen daughter Gloria, but it isn't always easy. Nora, their neighbor and a widow herself, tries to help the two as best she can, sharing food, gossip, and an interest in the spirit world with Louise. Still beautiful and in her prime, Louise nonetheless seems lost within herself and fundamentally stuck in meaningful repetition.
Both women long for the comfort of companionship that neither can provide for the other, and while Nora seems resigned to the idea that opportunity has passed her by, Louise clings to hope. The widows spend their evenings conjuring ghosts as Louise awaits the return of Mr. Merriwether, a handsome boarder that has captured her heart in desperate fashion. The two often compare notes regarding their spiritual visitors, apparitions that impart wisdom, poetry, and aesthetics with an air of authority even as they amiably question why they've been called forth.
Louise does her best to control her daughter's need for attention, particularly from young men, but a part of her aches for that same touch. Her nerves seem frayed, but she carefully keeps up appearances as she waits for the return of her suitor. Her daughter, filled with hormones and a thirst for something more, spends her free time at the library writing essays for class and flirting. While her mother pines for a love far away, Gloria is motivated by an infatuation with a particularly handsome, but shy, young man. Their enthusiasm cannot be contained as they fumble and explore their bodies in a sensual pas de deux.
Julie Layton is emotionally compelling as Louise, almost feverish in the belief her love will soon return, but she moves with purpose and dogged certainty. Kelly Weber's Nora is a doting mother hen with a comically long list of spiritual visitors and Molly McCaskill is filled with blossoming sexuality and a hint of rebellion as daughter Gloria. The three are also the only characters in the play that we're certain are real. Jacob Flekier, as the handsome young man, speaks with a stutter but finds confidence in Gloria's attention. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey are delightfully varied as multiple visitors from the spirit world; and their appearance as the three crones is earthy, comic, and telling. The apparitions, delightful characters from history and mythology, add texture and interest to the play, though their purpose remains vague. The performance is punctuated by Jack Wild's banjo, an instrument that adds voice and emotional texture to the complex story.
The story winds its way through the rooms of the Stockton House, the setting for the play, and the spirit visits interweave with Gloria and the young man's sexual exploration in a way that feels like an artfully choreographed dance. Director Jef Awada creates an atmosphere where the real and conjured characters insect without distraction, giving the entire production an ethereal dreaminess. The approach underscores the layers of emotion and need inherent in the script, creating a satisfying visual and sensory tapestry without sacrificing the plot.
A sense of ambiguity and spiritual curiosity is ever-present in the entertaining Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, as is the sensuality of young love. The story moves effortlessly through a world that is not fully corporeal, yet remains authentic as it examines the emotional impact of loss and longing. The play, running through May 21, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, presents characters that society would often prefer to ignore and imbues them with a fragile grace that begs our attention. Without judgment or criticism, Williams questions prevalent morality and asserts the very human and fundamental need for the love of a companion.