The Rise of Tennessee Williams

Check out "Tennessee Rising" at The Cell Theatre in Chelsea
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After more than a year of lockdown, when performances were forced to go online and Zoom ruled the stage, the live theater scene in New York is — hallelujah! — starting to show signs of life.

What better way to dip a toe back into theater than to see a live, in-person, socially distanced solo show? Head on over to The Cell Theatre in Chelsea, where “Tennessee Rising,” written and performed by the abundantly gifted Jacob Storms (“Red Oaks”), is now on the boards. Not only does the work focus on the formative years of legendary American playwright Tennessee Williams, but it’s also directed by a living legend of sorts, Alan Cumming. 

The multi-hyphenate artist, as any theater geek knows, first wowed Broadway audiences as the bare-chested, oily emcee in “Cabaret,” for which he nabbed a Tony Award. He also starred in Bertolt Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” and a one-man adaptation of “Macbeth,” among countless others. Plus, he’s appeared in a slew of films and television shows, written a couple of books, and co-owns a cabaret in the East Village. This production marks a rare directorial effort.

The experience of “Tennessee Rising” is a delight from start to finish. As you pass through the quaint 19th Century townhouse on West 23rd Street and enter the lush garden courtyard, it’s easy to imagine the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright might have spent time there (he briefly called New York home). With a smattering of chairs on the patio, the space feels less like a theater than a private salon, where Storms, as Tennessee, presides as the amicable host. With grace and wit, he addresses the audience directly throughout the proceedings, intensifying the intimacy.

“To the kindness of strangers” he begins, raising a full glass of what looks like bourbon. This is the first of many winking references to his plays sprinkled throughout the 75-minute performance.

“Tennessee Rising” weaves together stories of the playwright’s travails and triumphs during 1939-1945, when he adopted the nom-de-plume Tennessee (he previously was called Tom) and struggled to gain traction as a writer before finally striking gold with “The Glass Menagerie,” the first of many hits — all against a backdrop of the encroaching war against the “Nazi machine.”

As for the script, Storms does a fine job capturing Tennessee’s astute, lyrical voice and balancing biographical points with emotional keynotes. The loose narrative begins in a boarding house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where he describes the thrill of winning prize money from an eminent New York theater company, then shifts to a trip to LA and the thriving artist colony at Laguna Beach. Alas, his travel companion, Jim, does not fully return his affections.

Although Tennessee is relieved to escape the clutches of his mother in St. Louis, he often battles melancholy, where his only salvation is his typewriter. Much of his existence is plagued by self-doubt, yet he soldiers on. “I cannot give up. I have always made a religion of endurance” he says, recalling his bout with diptheria at age six which hindered him for many months.

In Taos, New Mexico he meets DH Lawrence’s wife, Frieda, and soaks in the creative energy. When he first visits New York, he is mesmerized by the Broadway marquees blazing with George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Mae West’s “Diamond Lil.” In Provincetown he has a steamy love affair with young Adonis, who jilts him for a woman and breaks his heart.

Naturally, his musings veer to his puritanical mother and his dear sister, Rose, who suffered from schizophrenia and eventually had a frontal lobotomy. The solace Rose gained from her collection of glass animals, and their mother’s insistence that she receive gentlemen callers, were details later folded into “The Glass Menagerie.”

Under the guidance of Cummings, the exceedingly appealing Storms, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the pre-mustached Tennessee at age 28, embodies the playwright with an intoxicating blend of charm and vulnerability. His lilting southern drawl is pitch perfect.

This is a bare bones production where character takes priority. The set consists only of a tiny table with an ancient Corona typewriter and a couple of ornate metal chairs. While there is no lighting to speak of, there is a bit of well-timed sound design to help establish the mood.

And if you’re nervous about encountering a cloud of COVID, you can rest easy. In addition to the outdoor setting, attendance is strictly limited to 18 people, strategically spaced apart. Masks are mandatory and theatergoers must undergo a digital temperature check.

Not that open-air theater is completely immune to risk. On the evening I attended, wailing sirens intruded at inopportune moments. The divebombing sparrows were clearly not interested in following stage direction. And, thanks to a sudden breeze-burst, the exquisite cherry tree released its gentle shower of blossoms. But this glorious spectacle occurred randomly near the top of the show, not the climax.

Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams | The Cell Theatre | 338 W. 23 St. | May 9 and 23 at 6 p.m.; June 6, 13, 20, 27 at 7 p.m. | $20 | SpinCycleNYC.com | 75 mins. with no intermission

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