This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tennessee Williams. In the annals of American theater, there are few playwrights who are more influential. Williams was the hyper-realistic, deeply emotional mind behind such undeniable classics A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie, which Threshold Repertory Theatre presents Saturday. The play is just part of a major centennial celebration that Threshold is orchestrating around the playwright.
Born on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Miss., Williams graduated from the University of Iowa before embarking on a career that would include numerous plays as well as short stories, one-acts, and screenplays. Williams, who was born Thomas Lanier Williams but changed his name to Tennessee after moving to New Orleans from St. Louis in 1939, won a Tony Award for The Rose Tattoo and two Pulitzer Prizes.
Major celebrations abound in the theatrical world this year to honor the artist. Georgetown University is hosting a large gala of both free and paid events that will feature famous guest artists like Edward Albee, Christopher Durang, and John Waters. Colleges all over the country are mounting new productions of Williams' classics.
And Charleston won't be left out of the festivities. Saturday, Threshold will host a centennial celebration at Memminger Auditorium, the young company's home. The celebration will last all day and feature free public lectures, readings, and events that lead up to the evening performance of The Glass Menagerie.
"When we were contemplating what kind of shows we want to do, I have a keen interest in what I consider classic theater," says Mark Mixson, artistic director of Threshold and director of Menagerie. "I think there's a reason why some plays are well known and have meaning for people." Mixson is right. The plays of the man that some call the American Shakespeare are constant fixtures on stages the world over, and Charleston is no exception. Footlight Players has Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a part of their season next year, and the Village Playhouse and Charleston Stage have performed his works previously. His upcoming anniversary played a part in the decision to include the show in Threshold's season, but it was far from the deciding factor.
Opening the day's festivities will be a reading of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, a little-known Williams piece that saw its world premiere in 1978 right here in Charleston as part of Spoleto Festival USA. Some longtime Charlestonians may even remember the original premiere, which Williams himself attended. Marybeth Clark, Beth Curley, Linda Esposito, and Susie Hallatt will be performing the one-act play, which focuses on four women struggling for a sense of identity and independence, a recurring Williams theme.
Mark and Cristy Landis, both theater professors at the College of Charleston, will host a discussion about St. Louis, the city that served as the setting for Creve and Menagerie, as well as a home to Williams for many years. Roundtable discussions will also be had, featuring Keely Enright of the Village Playhouse and other local theater veterans.
"To a certain degree they are academic, but they are going to be fun. It will be interesting to see how people appreciate the shows," says Mixson. "The lecture is on Williams' life and how he came to write both plays."
Mixson and Threshold have been hard at work prepping Memminger for this new play. They have remodeled their performance space to eliminate the sound issues that plagued Every Christmas Story Ever Told last December. Mixson believes they have largely fixed that issue. Glass Menagerie will serve as a test for the space.
While Williams may turn 100 on the 26th, it will also mark the 50th anniversary of his last Broadway play, and that number puts things into perspective. Tennessee Williams, who died in February 1983 at the age of 71, has not been a contemporary of the stage for nearly half a century, yet his works continue to inspire, uplift, and entertain audiences the world over. And that is definitely something to celebrate.