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Play: a largely ignored work of an American master. Director: one of the gutsiest risk-takers in American regional theatre today. Actors: three Triad Stage newcomers who stir things up a bit. Such are the makings of Kingdom of Earth, the latest Triad Stage production.
Kingdom of Earth is a Tennessee Williams play that debuted on Broadway in 1968 to a critical trouncing. Director Preston Lane calls it a “neglected wonder.” No wonder, then, that Lane would take it on, tweak it, and turn it into a fluid, intense, scathingly comic reinterpretation. Southern gothic at its best. And even though this is the fifth Tennessee Williams production at Triad Stage, Lane encourages audiences to meet America’s greatest playwright “as if for the first time.”
Set, like many of Williams’ plays, in the Mississippi Delta where he grew up, there’s no taking the “Tennessee’’ out of this play. It’s dripping with Southern accents, Southern names, and Southern taboos. New take or not, Williams’ fans will feel right at home in this decaying and soon-to-be-flooded Southern mansion being fought over by two family members.
Myrtle (Ryah Nixon) is the pivotal character in this archetypal tale of two brothers. A woman of dubious integrity and charming naiveté, she agreed to marry the tubercular Lot (Clayton Fox) thinking she could not only cure, but change him into the lover she wants and needs. But, alas, this major mamma’s boy had other motives when he chose the erstwhile showgirl to survive him. Enter half-brother Chicken (Philippe Bowgen), who is all too ready to make Myrtle’s lusty dreams come true. The love scenes are appropriately steamy, but if the actors wanted to crank it up a teeny bit, we could take it.
Fox, a New York-based actor and director, plays Lot with the aplomb of a seasoned craftsman. Bowgen, an Off-Broadway veteran, brings a dangerous sex appeal to Chicken, a man torn between his biracial background and his familial rights to the land that is his last chance for dignity.
The audience’s admiration for Nixon’s Myrtle was at times audible as the Broadwayworld Award-winner (for Doralee in the national tour of 9 to 5: The Musical) flitted between concerned wife, temptress, and scene-stealer as she changed costumes on the rickety mansion staircase that symbolizes the fragility of this skeleton of a family. Nixon’s presence fills the stage (as well as scanty costumes by Bill Brewer) and as a ménage a trios, this team would be hard to beat.
The set, focused on a staircase on which most of Lot and Myrtle’s interactions take place, also includes a kitchen and parlor, where Myrtle and Chicken dance their pas de deux. It is voluptuous and at the same time dilapidated, as designed by Anya Klepikov, whose set for Triad Stage’s award-winning The Glass Menagerie dazzled audiences. A huge backdrop “window” gives the audience an unobstructed view of the Mississippi Delta’s subtropical climate at its worst, as well as a hint to the weather indoors. Kudos to lighting designer Jesse Belsky and sound designer Phillip Owen for pulling off this amazing trompe l’oeil.
Kingdom of Earth is pure Triad Stage, and pure Triad Stage is beyond outstanding. The theatre’s mission of fostering a Southern voice resounds in this production as much as in any it has done, a triumph, Southern-style.
Kingdom of Earth continues through Sunday, March 3. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.