Eccentricities Offers Ample Opportunity to Stare

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Tennessee Williams

USD Theatre Program
Wayne S. Knuston Theatre
September 26, 2019
Future Performances: September 27, 28 & 29

We’ve all been taught better than to point and stare, even if many of the citizens of Glorious Hill, Mississippi have not.  But the USD Theatre program’s production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale welcomes that kind of staring.  It’s hard not to stare at Alma (Alyssa Elbert) and John Jr. (Jackson Whitaker) as they navigate the family and social constrictions of their less-than-glorious hometown. 

The plot of this Tennessee Williams play is simple and straightforward enough.  No spoilers here, I think: Alma is our eccentric nightingale.  When this revision of Summer and Smoke first premiered on Broadway in 1976, its criticism of mockery and narrow-mindedness might have been a little more socially jarring than it is today.  In an age more conversant in the age of bullying, there may be better plays that make roughly the same point.  But what director Oliver Mayes gets right in his USD production is not how it leans into the social angle, but how it transcends it.  USD’s production isn’t about how Eccentric Alma fits (or doesn’t) into her community—it’s not about social commentary—it’s about how she fits (or doesn’t) into a world with John Jr.  Eccentric or not, that’s something we can all identify with. 

Comedy’s not easy, and there was plenty of it supplied by John Jr.’s mother (Chloe Sand) and Alma’s mother (Josie Kasik).  Even harder than getting a boisterous laugh, though, is sustaining the silence, which Elbert and Whitaker do with poise and maturity, especially after the intermission.  With honest and complex performances, these two carry this play on their backs and in their hearts.  Elbert’s Alma is goofy, sure, but she’s not merely that.  And John Jr. amounts to far more than his obvious privilege—and his mother—might suggest. 

As for the play itself, this idea of how we treat (or mistreat) our eccentrics may be a little tired to a modern-day audience.  The extended, and somewhat clumsy, metaphor of the burning log seems to hint at a writer trying too hard to be literary.  We can forgive Williams for not being at his very best here because Eccentricities gives us the opportunity to see Whitaker and Elbert at theirs.  These leads never seem to be trying too hard because they never seem to be trying.  Their acting and chemistry is wholly convincing.  The set was gorgeous and versatile and allowed for both the wide angle shot and the intimate zoom.  And as far as I’m concerned, Director Mayes can do whatever he wants in the first act, just as long as he gets us to that scene with John Jr. and Alma in the second.  What that scene is, exactly, you’ll have to come and find out for yourself.  I’ll just say that I never would have expected such emotional complexity from a college cast.  Now I guess I’ll have to.

Brendan Todt is a stay-at-home father who has never taken a theatre class in his life. His poems and short prose can be found in print magazines and on various internets. He mows his neighbor’s lawn in exchange for piano lessons.