Mr. Williams and Miss Wood

Written by Angela Decker for the DailyTidings.

Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s quietly rich production of “Mr. Williams and Miss Wood” offers a poignant backstage view of playwright Tennessee Williams. The two-character, two-act play by Max Wilk chronicles the close, yet often strained, 30-year relationship between Williams and his agent and friend Audrey Wood.

From start to finish, the show is smooth and elegant. Wilk’s well-crafted script and Grizzard’s tight pacing keep the story moving and the audience engaged. “Mr. Williams and Miss Wood” is arguably one of ACT’s finest productions to date.

Alexei Menedes plays Williams, Vanessa Hopkins plays Wood, and Jeannine Grizzard directs this thoughtful and lovely play. It tells the story of how Wood mentored Williams’ genius into theatrical success, then stuck with him through his ups and downs. Williams’ personal story unfolds through letters, soliloquies and direct dialogue between the actors. We learn his lifetime assessment of the tough but kind-hearted Wood who introduced him to the American theater.

Theirs is a fascinating and at times heartbreaking story of friendship, fame and loyalty that offers rare insight into Williams. It was Wood who discovered Williams and nurtured his career and craft. She was a well-regarded literary agent, who represented theatrical talents such as Carson McCullers, William Inge and Arthur Kopit.

Decades of success, Pulitzer Prizes for “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and star-studded movies fail to make the mercurial Williams happy, and his failures prove overwhelming. Toward the end, his depression and drug and alcohol abuse not only affect his writing, but also lead to a falling out between him and Wood.

Hopkins and Menedes are strong actors whose chemistry and clever banter give the audience a sense of being in intimate company with these Broadway legends.

Menedes is a charming and passionate Williams, who at first is enthusiastic and sunny. Gradually, and with surprising subtlety, his smile fades as his character succumbs to despair and addiction. By the end, he slurs and shuffles, ripping into his friend with the same sharp wit that made him famous.

Hopkins is spot on as the doyenne of theatrical agents, stylish and confident. She perfectly balances professionalism with a fiercely maternal attitude toward Williams. From time to time, Hopkins must briefly represent unseen characters, and slips into their voices so easily that the audience feels their presence.

The small, yet well-appointed set is made up of little more than a park bench, two desks and a pair of coat racks. Yet it serves believably as Wood’s office, Williams’ various residences, theater seats and iconic locations in New York. The simplicity of the set, constructed by Archie Koenig, is perfectly scaled to the small venue. It both frames the story and evokes nostalgia as the characters dial rotary telephones, exchange telegrams and tap away at manual typewriters.

Black and white images of various New York locations and the original playbills for Williams’ plays flash on a screen at the back of the set. Since the set does not change, it is these images and Karen Douglas’ smart vintage costumes that carry us forward in time over the span of 30 years. The show is a special treat for theater history buffs, as the characters drop famous names of the era, such as Marlon Brando and Lana Turner, and offer insider tidbits and gossip.

Discovered by his “guardian agent,” the legendary Audrey Wood also nurtured playwrights William Inge, Arthur Kopit, and Robert Anderson. It was under her steadying influence that Tennessee Williams unleashed his genius and laid open a vein in the American psyche, sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, but always honest. He had an urgent need to write and feared without that he’d suffer the madness of his sister. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was a plea for the understanding of the “delicate people” in the character of Blanche, but a lifelong friend said that he was speaking of himself as well. We are still catching up with the depth of his plays. After his death, Tennessee’s words replace the man who, though tortured and crazed by his own demons could still say, “Words are a net to catch beauty.”