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Two by Tennessee Williams; 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and Kingdom of Earth

Judy Jerome and Michael Keller in a scene from KINGDOM OF EARTH
Photo Credit: Hunter Dowell


                                                         By Ron Cohen


A bill of Tennessee Williams one-acts is always a noteworthy offering, even if, as here, the writing is not totally fulfilled. This production interestingly combines an early work that emerged in the mid-1940s when Williams’ roller-coaster career was in high gear-- 27 Wagons Full of Cotton -- and a later piece –- Kingdom of Earth -- that vividly represents the start of his dark time, a period marked by failures. Both, though, take place on familiar Williams terrain – the deep South – and both are fueled with high-octane sexuality.



l. to r.) Michael Keller, Kathryn Luce Garfunkel and Justin Holcomb in a scene from 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON
Photo Credit: Hunter Dowell


Cotton, which opens the program, boasts a nicely direct storyline, with a bawdy flavor reminiscent of classic storytelling, as in Bocaccio’s Decameron. Jake (Michael Keller), a cotton gin owner in Mississippi, is seeing his business fail as a syndicate takes over much of the surrounding farm land and the ginning as well. As the play begins, he takes matters into his own hands and blows up a neighboring mill on the syndicate plantation.


To meet his commitments, the syndicate gin operator, Silva (Justin Holcomb), is thus forced to turn over to Jake a whole lot of cotton – 27 wagons full, in fact – for ginning. However, in a conversation with Jake’s wife – the nubile Flora (Kathryn Luce Garfunkel), who manages to be both laconic and loose-tongued – Silva learns that Jake was responsible for the burning of the syndicate gin mill. He takes his revenge by bedding down Flora. Is it rape or seduction? In the final scene, Flora seems bruised, but also giddy at the prospect of Silva returning the next day with another load of cotton that will keep Jake busy for hours. In heavily altered form, the play was the basis for the film Baby Doll.


Both plays have been directed by Marilyn Fried, and in both of them, the actors’ dialects let us know for certain that we’re in Williams territory. However, in Cotton, the portrayals never seem to burrow much, if at all, beneath the compact text. The meeting between Silva and Jake after the fire is fairly friction-free. The crucial scene, in which Silva learns of Jake’s guilt and puts into action his vengeance by following Flora from the porch into the house, is likewise a becalmed affair. Holcomb’s Silva is rather business-like in his pursuit of Flora. It’s a mood that’s provocative at first, but as it continues through the scene things never become especially threatening or sexy. Garfunkel’s Flora, an uncertain blend of pulchritude and child-like behavior, is more grumpy than desperate or tempted in fending off Silva’s advances. The mix of comedy, sensuality and danger that could ripple through the proceedings is hardly there.


Judy Jerome and Michael Keller in a scene from KINGDOM OF EARTH
Photo Credit: Hunter Dowell


Kingdom of Earth – under the title of The Seven Descents of Myrtle – premiered on Broadway in 1968 and disappeared after 29 performances. It did garner Estelle Parsons a Tony nomination, however, and the story made it to the silver screen in 1970 under the title The Last of the Mobile Hot Shots. The script being done here is an abbreviated version. The ellipses in the storytelling are apparent, but the one-act manages to whip up a bit more tension and drama than Cotton. It takes place in a dilapidated house on the Mississippi Delta, which is about to be inundated with flood waters. It’s inhabited by a scruffy redneck named Chicken, because when flood waters hit the delta he climbs to the roof with some chickens. As Chicken awaits the deluge, who should come to his door but his half-brother Lot, who’s left hospital care even though he’s dying of tuberculosis, and Lot’s brand new bride Myrtle.


Myrtle puts a dent in Chicken’s future. With the death of Lot (the family’s legitimate son), Chicken is to inherit the family house, but now Lot has a wife and potential heir. Still, as Lot lies in bed upstairs with his fatal coughing, Chicken and Myrtle in extended talk and some clinches make a connection forged of sex, loneliness and desperation. Here, Michael Keller, playing Chicken, is given a chance to display a deeper probing of character and he makes Chicken an arresting, fate-buffeted fellow whose occasional dim-wittedness can inspire audience empathy as well as humor.


As Myrtle, Judy Jerome provides a beguiling foil for Chicken’s aspirations. She’s that familiar figure: a girl of easy virtue with a heart of gold. She’s funny, too, often cracking wise about her misadventures, but her frisky nature doesn’t completely mask her underlying sense of desperation. And the final demise of Lot, played by Holcomb in a brief appearance at the play’s start, provides a riveting climax to their liaison.


As in Cotton, the actors, however, are not helped by makeshift set design, flat lighting and some fairly inaudible or incomprehensible sound design, which occasionally carries informative bits of dialogue coming from off-stage characters. Still, it’s good to report that even with its shortcomings, the show does deliver a sampling of Williams’ extraordinary genius. It also has a frisson of celebrity in that Garfunkel is the wife of and sometimes co-vocalist and backup for Art Garfunkel of Simon and Garfunkel fame.


Playing at St. Luke’s Theatre

308 West 46th Street


Playing until September 4