Theater archives

An Early Williams, Not Without Grit, Gets Turned Into Mush


The 26-year-old Thomas Lanier Williams, not yet self-christened Tennessee, wrote Spring Storm for a graduate playwriting seminar at the University of Iowa. He read it aloud to the class, got laughed at, and put the script away in a drawer; it wasn’t found again till after his death. The moral is that student laughter can be both smart-alecky and justified. Looked at with sympathetic hindsight, by those who know Williams’s later works, Spring Storm is like a seedbed full of green shoots waiting to flower; scrutinized for its own sake, it’s a jumpy, overwritten, clumsily melodramatic work, full of flaws that would linger on to haunt Williams even at his best.

The heroine, named Heavenly like the girl in Sweet Bird of Youth, lives in a Mississippi River town with her emotionally distant father (dying, and given the same false diagnosis as Big Daddy in Cat) and her socially driven, Amanda Wingfield-like mother. Loved like Blanche DuBois by a weak, poetical rich boy, Heavenly is more attracted to a tough, restless river rat, driving her rich suitor to bond emotionally with a high-strung, spinsterish librarian. With acidulous pushing from local gossips, this four-sided triangle easily tips over into suicide, desertion, and general despair. Its only palliative is the language, rich with the softly chiming phrases and sharp comic jolts that are Williams’s special joys. Regrettably, a young director and a mostly inexperienced cast, lumbered with a set even clumsier than Williams’s dramaturgy, treat the lush language as either a solemn exercise in poesy or an excuse for cornmeal-mush Southern accents, with results that seem alternately incomprehensible and interminable. Luckily for the curious, Spring Storm exists in print.