To kick off its new development program, PlayWorks, the Pasadena Playhouse is setting the bar high with its inaugural production of Dotson Rader’s God Looked Away, starring Oscar- and Tony-winner Al Pacino. The acclaimed actor portrays Southern playwright Tennessee Williams in a turbulent period of his life, following years of fame sparked by the critical success of The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and a string of other plays now part of the American theatrical lexicon: A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1955), Sweet Bird of Youth (1959) and more.
Joining Pacino on the boards is Judith Light (Transparent), a two-time Tony-winner, as Williams’ close friend Estelle, and Miles Gaston Villanueva (Jane the Virgin) as Baby. Directed by Robert Allen Ackerman, the production runs until March 19.
Williams’ work is no stranger to The Pasadena Playhouse, which served as the backdrop for three of his world premieres in the 1940s: You Touched Me in 1943 (co-written with Donald Windham), The Purification (1944) and Stairs to the Roof in 1947. More than 20 years later, writer and novelist Rader befriended Williams and later wrote a memoir about their close friendship: Tennessee, Cry of the Heart (1982). Both were gay men — never romantically linked — from different eras, who bonded at a time when taboos against homosexuality were beginning to be challenged in America.
Rader started writing a play about Williams after the playwright’s death in 1983 but later shelved it. He resurrected the project about a year ago, workshopping the play with Pacino. who, according to Rader, has uncannily captured Williams’ humor, pride and stubbornness as well as his unyielding defense of people living on the fringes of society.
Arroyo Monthly: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction and even a memoir about Tennessee. Why write a play, something you’ve never done?
Dotson Rader: Well, he was a playwright! I started working on this six months after he died because I was afraid of losing him. I’m aware that memory corrodes and memory revises itself and memory becomes unreliable. I wanted to get it all down. I also started to see things being written about him that were just not true and they were sanitizing his life. This happens all the time. They were making him acceptable — and part of his brilliance was his willingness to write about things that were unacceptable, about the outcasts and the broken, the disconsolate, the rejected of life, the wretched — all qualities that, in ways, you could apply to him.
This is the first play in the PlayWorks program. What are you looking forward to?
The live audience is like a second writer on the project. We are trying to get this play where it needs to be. We’ve had table readings, roundtables and workshops, but when you put it in front of a live audience, you see things so differently. You sense when the audience is getting restless or bored. Things you thought would bring a laugh don’t. Things you thought would get a little twitter get a big laugh. You gradually learn what works. Every other kind of writing, you’re dealing with a magazine editor, a movie director or other editors and that is really an audience of one. But not with a live audience…It’s exciting.
How has it been to see your words leap from the page to the mouths of actors?
Tennessee was difficult, we had arguments, but we loved each other. It’s like Lionel Trilling’s line about a marriage, “So often the very thing that makes a marriage unbearable, makes it unbreakable.” We were friends for 14 years, and I can only say this about a handful of people: not once, ever, was I bored. He was very self-dramatic, but he was so alive. And Pacino brings that vividness of Tennessee to life.
We had our first reading with Al about a year ago and I sat there listening to the actors read and I don’t know how the hell he does it, but Al caught the cadence of the way Tennessee talked. I could close my eyes and I could hear Tennessee.
Tell us why you chose this particular point in the playwright’s life.
The play takes place in 1981 and in the present. The play opens like Menagerie with a monologue by Baby, the narrator. All you’ll see on the stage are Baby’s memories of Tennessee, because that is all that exists now, because Tennessee is dead and everyone is gone. It’s over. Finished. These events take place so long ago and Baby is the survivor, like Tom in Menagerie. The play, his memory, is colored by his own feelings, as memory is.
I picked this point in Tennessee’s life because that is when the final bell rang. I don’t want to say too much, but this was a critical point in his life, this one weekend in Chicago, the weekend of his last play. Chicago is where fame found him, it’s where Menagerie opened; he had been a bit of a failed writer until then; his first play, Battle of Angels, flopped terribly. Suddenly Menagerie became this incredible phenomenon. Chicago is where success found him — only now, success is gone. And he’s back in Chicago hoping it will happen again.
A lot of what you’ll hear Tennessee say, he said in real life. Everyone is based on real people and I could tell you who they are, but I’m not going to. (Laughs.) You’ll see!
Why is God looking away?
The play will tell you that.
Like many artists, Williams was keenly creative but he also fought many inner demons, especially later in his life — alcoholism, drug addiction, abusive personal relationships. How do you make these moments a serious examination of life, loss and character on stage, instead of just a presentation of sensational events?
What’s in the play is in the play because it is true. These things are here because there is a theatrical reason for it, because it serves the drama. Look at this way: You’ve been married to someone for a long time and you have two hours to tell people what that person was like — so you edit his life, you pick out what is most representative of what it was like being with this person. While the play covers a weekend, that weekend becomes representational. The audience has to leave understanding why and where he was and why the play ended the way it did. The play is about the stripping away — everyone on the stage is stripping away, pulling off masks. As the play goes on, people reveal themselves as who they actually are. Things that don’t seem at all remarkable or sensationalistic to me, others may find discomforting. But truth is discomforting. I don’t want to be part of the coterie of sycophants and academics who sanitize the lives of public figures. Theater is a safe place where you can hear the truth — even when it is uncomfortable. (Pause) Maybe what you see on stage is the price he had to pay to give us the beauty he created.
What do you want the new generation of theatergoers to understand about Tennessee Williams, the man?
The play begins in the present and we step into the past, on that cusp of history just after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan; 1981 is the end of the ’60s and ’70s. It’s the end of that period of freedom, of social experimentation, of when people didn’t know that drugs were bad, of sex being wide open — that incredible period comparable to France and Weimar Germany in the 1920s. When every question was open, every possibility presented itself, when all restraints were gone.
It was also the period right before the beginning of AIDS and the beginning of terror. We started to realize that something was happening. We were losing friends and it suddenly begins to dawn on us the price we have paid for personal freedom. It’s a period in American social and artistic history that isn’t going to happen again. Not only in terms of Tennessee’s career — it’s about the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another in American history.
I think young people will like the play because it deals with freedom and a world without fear, unlike what they know now.
Is the play hopeful?
The play is true.
What would Williams think about the social media culture of 2017? Would he tweet?
Tennessee used a manual typewriter until he died. He didn’t like electric typewriters. If he were here today, he’d still be on Key West typing on his old Royal manual typewriter.
What do you miss most about Tennessee?
Of all the people I’ve known in my life, he had the most real presence. He was so completely aware of life and where people were around him. And he was sensitive to them. That’s what I miss the most. He had intense sympathy for the losers in life, for the marginalized, for the people who were beaten before they even began.
He had great contempt for the money people. The only problems he ever had with his plays, and what ultimately undid him, was with the money people. “Oh, you can’t write that! The matinee crowd won’t go for that!!!” He knew he needed them, but he often thought, “If you had so much money, can’t you make the world hurt a little less?” He got involved in the anti-war movement and protests with me and he was always baffled by the problems that could be fixed with just a little bit of money.
Tennessee, I don’t mean to speak for him, but you can see it in his plays, saw the immorality of money people who don’t put money into things that matter — like art, writers and the truth — but who spend only on themselves. He quoted Andrew Carnegie, “A man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” Tennessee saw his own talent and many gifts — he was a Christian, you see — from God as challenges to see if we can use them for good. Tennessee used his gifts the best way he knew how, on behalf of the people who had no voice.
God Looked Away runs through March 19 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. The curtain rises at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tuesday performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Feb. 14 and 28. Ticket prices range from $126 to $206. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org.
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