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Night of the Iguana

Rarely produced Tennessee Williams play hits the mark

Malcolm J West as Nanno and Ellen Peters as Hannah. Photo credit: Jason Ganwich

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Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, now playing at Dukesbay Theater, is not an easy play to watch. It is tough, complicated and riveting, with a fascinating cast of characters, few of whom are nice people but a few of whom - notably the defrocked Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (played by Mark Peterson), who is likeable despite being a oft' disgusting human being.

Locked out of his church, Shannon is in Mexico where he works as a tour guide for a second-rate company.  He is caught having sex with Charlotte (Chevi Chung), an underage girl. Stranding his tour group, women from a Baptist college in Texas, he takes refuge in a run-down hotel run by his old friend, the recently widowed and outrageously lusty Maxine Faulk (Stephanie Leeper).

A middle-aged artist, Hannah Jelkes (Ellen Peters), shows up pushing her 97-year-old grandfather Nonno (Malcolm J. West) in a wheelchair. Billed as the world's oldest living poet, Nonno recites poetry for tips when he can remember the lines, and Hannah sells watercolors and charcoal portraits wherever they go. Maxine's Costa Verde Hotel seems to be their last refuge after they've been refused lodging at every other hotel. They're flat broke. Hannah and Shannon become friends during their wild night in the hotel - despite helping Maxine keep him imprisoned and hog-tied in a hammock, ostensibly for his own good.

The set designed by Burton Yuen is gorgeous thanks in large part to Jennifer York's great faux painting of floors and walls. The only problem with that is according to Williams' script, the Costa Verde is a shabby hotel, which would be much more fitting.

Under the able direction of Dukesbay co-founder Randy Clark, the acting is superb. Peterson is commanding, sometimes funny and often pitiable as the complex defrocked priest. West, known to Dukesbay audiences for his outstanding performance as the chauffeur in Driving Miss Daisy, turns in another award-worthy performance as the elderly poet, Nonno. Peters underplays Hannah Jelks with controlled energy. The audience senses great reserves of strength underneath her quiet demeanor.

Leeper's brazen performance seemed overly dramatic to me, but that's precisely the kind of character she was playing. Maggie Knott, superb in the supporting role as Miss Judith Fellowes, has been a behind-the-scenes force in South Sound theater for years. This is her first time on stage in a long time, and she inhabits the role like a seasoned pro.

From the beginning, multiculturalism has been a strong part of Dukesbay's mission. In their production of The Night of the Iguana black men, Peterson and West, play characters traditionally played by white actors, and Chung is of mixed race, black and Korean. Quoting from promotional material sent out by the company: "Williams might not have originally imagined his play in this way, but incorporating actors from various backgrounds brings home the universality of loneliness, redemption and the need for honest human contact."

The Night of the Iguana, Friday-Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. through Nov. 15, no performance Nov. 13, $15, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., Tacoma, www.dukesbayiguana.brownpapertickets.com

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