The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a lesser-known work by Tennessee Williams being staged by the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, is the story of Alma Winemiller, the odd, intelligent daughter of the Episcopalian rector in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. When the play opens, Alma’s attempts to fit in are driving her frantic, while even her most modest pleasures (organizing a cultural club, feeding the birds in the town square) make her an object of ridicule. Her father, Reverend Winemiller (played by Charles Dean), suffers continually under the burden of his mad wife and the scandal of her sister’s elopement with Otto Schwarzkopf and the Musee Mechanique. Alma (Beth Wilmurt) does her best to fulfill her mother’s duties and make “a life out of little accomplishments,” until thrown into crisis by her sudden attraction to the town’s most eligible bachelor, the young Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck), whose over-attentive mother (Marcia Pizzo) is determined Johnny should make a good marriage.
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One of the most weirdly sexual moments in the play occurs when Alma tries to serve John a glass of eggnog; her fingers slip and the spoon is “completely submerged” in the liquid. She cannot abide the intimacy of dipping her fingers into the liquor to retrieve the spoon; the awkwardness of the moment nearly sends her into a panic attack before John offers to fish the spoon out with his “surgeon’s fingers.” In the end, Alma surprises us by understanding much more about her desires and her prospects than her artlessness and naivete would suggest.
In mathematics, an oval is eccentric to the degree it is not a circle. Alma’s eccentricities, then, are not just her ideas and mannerisms, but the ways she contrives to make her prison less confining, to lengthen and vary her orbit before she comes, inevitably, back around. Structurally, the play reflects that orbit, beginning and ending in the town square, on the Fourth of July, beneath a statue whose name is “Eternity.”
It’s exciting and novel to see a nearly unheard-of play by such a familiar author. The Aurora Theatre, with its intimate, black-box space, is the perfect venue for experiments like Eccentricities, and the production is strong and well-acted. Beth Wilmurt as Alma Winemiller is nothing less than perfect. She’s both awkward and graceful, lovely and odd, her pretentious, over-embellished attempts at small-talk eventually giving way to impassioned boldness, her voice frantic and clear. We adore her and are scared by her. Marcia Pizzo is dazzlingly bitchy as Mrs. Buchanan. Her backstabbing Stepford grin never dims. Amy Crumpacker’s performance as the demented Mrs. Winemiller is nearly transcendental. Her gestures, nonsensical murmuring, and coquettish little sashays almost form an interpretive dance behind the action.
Despite the high quality of the production (directed by Tom Ross), it’s clear why the play is rarely performed. Williams is up to all his old tricks — overbearing mothers, hereditary madness, lust, and the line between insanity and originality — but here, with less success. The play’s framework is too thin and brittle to support the weight of its over-ripe metaphors. The gothic reveal — the oft-deferred story of the fire that destroyed the Musee Mechanique — fails to thrill or horrify. The ending, meant to be triumphant, is thoroughly empty and unsatisfying. One almost feels Williams should stick to wrecking his heroines with sex and madness, if Alma Winemiller is his version of a liberated woman. The pre-World War I setting, the lace and lorgnettes and decorous language, make the risks and the sexual energy feel somehow far away and muted, as if we were staring at John and Alma through an old-fashioned stereoscope.
Chief among the marvels at the Musee Mechanique, and perhaps the play’s only underexploited motif, is a clockwork bird-girl made all of silver. Every three minutes (we’re told), a mechanical bird pops out of her mouth and sings three clear notes. The bird-girl perishes in the fire; somehow we sense that she is Alma’s twin. For some reason it’s significant that Alma survives and the bird-girl doesn’t, but the idea is never really brought to completion. The play has many fascinating moments like this, kernels that might be exploited in a new interpretation — an art Williams was no stranger to. Many of his stage plays were adapted from his short stories, and then further adapted for the screen; shortly before his death he published a re-imagined version of Chekhov’s The Seagull (a play Eccentricities borrows from, heavily). I can’t imagine that he would look on a contemporary rewrite of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale as anything but a gift.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale by the Aurora Theatre Company runs through May 8.