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Williamsesque Drama : Career Comes Full Circle for Star of ‘Confessions of a Nightingale’

Tennessee Williams’ last story is one he didn’t realize he had written.

Every line in “Confessions of a Nightingale” is by Williams, who had nothing to do with putting this one-man show together. That was the job of Ray Stricklyn, adapting “The Ultimate Seduction” by Charlotte Chandler, the last person to have interviewed Williams before he choked to death on a plastic bottle cap six years ago.

Stricklyn, 58, who stars in “Confessions of a Nightingale” in a return engagement at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre tonight through Sunday, can be considered another Williams’ creation--of a sort. His acting career started with Williams, ended with Williams and was resurrected because of Williams.

Every night, when Stricklyn, as Williams, delves into the demon of drink that brought the great playwright down, Stricklyn strengthens his own resolve not to again lose himself in comparable ways.

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“I can identify with so many many things” in Williams’ life, he said. “The loneliness. And the fact that I was drinking too much myself. Ironically, just as Tennessee said he was afraid to give up his demons because he would lose his angels, with me it has been the opposite. People say to me, ‘Do you think playing this role has made you become like Tennessee Williams?’ I’ve tried to lead my life the exact opposite from how Tennessee did. Because, when I was given this second chance to be an actor and be appreciated again--which we all need--I didn’t want any of my past demons to hold me back again.

“It’s the happiest I’ve been in so many years, and I’m so grateful. It’s been a learning process playing him. I think it’s made me a better person.”

The coincidences that tie the two together are uncanny.

The very first Broadway play Stricklyn saw was also Williams’ first Broadway production--"The Glass Menagerie"--a semi-autobiographical story of an aspiring writer struggling to escape a suffocating family life that made Williams a celebrity at 33. The first audition piece Stricklyn used to get into a drama program was from a Williams one-act, “Moonie’s Kid Don’t Cry.”

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But Williams didn’t actively begin changing Stricklyn’s life until 40 years ago, when the then 18-year-old actor met the playwright for the first time. Stricklyn had left his native Houston for New York to pursue a grand passion for acting. He had heard that Williams was doing a reading of his works at Circle in the Square. But, to Stricklyn’s dismay, he found the show sold out. A man came up, asked him what was wrong and then guided the teen-ager to free front-row seats next to Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford and William Inge.

Stricklyn’s angel of mercy turned out to be Paul Bigelow, Williams’ closest friend. Not only did Bigelow introduce Stricklyn to Williams after the show, but he asked him to come to his apartment to read for a play he was casting.

“I had to go through the dining room to get to the living room, and there was Tennessee Williams sitting with Carson McCullers and Bennett Cerf,” Stricklyn said by telephone from his Los Angeles home.

“I was just awe-struck. They were leaving, and then Paul said, ‘Tenn, would you like to stay and hear this young man? I thought, ‘Oh dear no!’ I was so nervous. But Tennessee not only stayed, he read the part they thought Greer Garson was going to do, so you can say Tennessee Williams was my first leading lady!

“We read it three times, and Tennessee said, ‘Paul, I would give the part to the young man.’ ”

The show fell through when Garson failed to take the part, but the friendship with Bigelow and Williams continued as Bigelow found him jobs reading and evaluating scripts, and Williams hired him to type his revisions for his latest play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Stricklyn did eventually make it as an actor on Broadway, winning a Theater World award for the most-promising newcomer in 1953. He left for Hollywood two years later and proceeded to play juvenile roles in 15 films including “Ten North Frederick,” in which he played Gary Cooper’s son; “The Catered Affair” in which he played Bette Davis’ son, and the lead role in “Young Jesse James.”

But as he reached 30, the juvenile parts dried up. He took the role of Lord Byron in Williams’ “Camino Real” in Houston. But Stricklyn had no confidence in his performance. When he heard that Williams himself was coming to the play, he hoped the playwright wouldn’t remember him because, as he recalled, “I was so bad.”

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He needn’t have worried. It was 1971, two years after Williams’ latest mental and physical breakdown, a decade after his last success, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Night of the Iguana,” a decade marked by the writer’s increasing addiction to sleeping pills and liquor.

“He was so stoned that he could have been in Cleveland,” Stricklyn recalled. “He just waved at the actors.”

But, if Williams didn’t actually tell Stricklyn he was bad in the play, it was enough that Stricklyn knew he was. He waited a few more years for the phone to ring--it didn’t--so he took a job in a public-relations firm for the next 12 years.

But he never stopped missing acting. Like Williams during his fallow years, he said he drank too much. Then finally, at the urging of client Liv Ullman and former mentor Jose Quintero, he agreed to his first audition in more than a dozen years--for a Williams’ play.

He tried out for another Tennessee Williams’ play, “Vieux Carre"--and got the part.

His reviews at the Beverly Hills Playhouse were glowing, and some critics suggested that Stricklyn would make an interesting Williams. It was 1983, and, later that year, the playwright died.

Stricklyn’s producer asked the actor to come up with a tribute for Williams. Charlotte Chandler was a client of Stricklyn’s public-relations firm, and he poured through her book of interviews to come up with a short version of what was to become “Confessions of a Nightingale.” Though it was not meant to be reviewed, critics were so enthusiastic that Stricklyn expanded it.

Stricklyn has since given more than 500 performances of the show in more than 25 cities, including Off-Broadway at the Audrey Wood Playhouse in 1986.

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Three years ago, Stricklyn quit his firm and last year performed “Confessions” at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland. In May, he will do the Israel International Festival in Jerusalem. London is in the works. And April 17, he will perform at the William Inge festival in Independence, Kan.

Walking the road that diverges from the road of one’s dreams can make for a painful journey. Stricklyn’s detour rejoined the path again--something for which he never ceases to be thankful.

“From when I was a little kid, I always wanted to be an actor,” he said. “Maybe it was a way to run away from the mundane life in Houston, I don’t know. But it was something that I desperately wanted to do, and I never deviated until the business left me and I left it.

“When I think of the torment I was in 12 years or even longer, I think all that was part of Ray Stricklyn’s development, and it has made me a better actor. But I don’t recommend it. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. You can run away from what you wanted to do for so long, and then it takes its toll. But we each have our own road. And this one has been mine.”

Stricklyn may have his own road, but it is one that continues to intersect with Williams--first the man and now the memory. He doesn’t try to imitate the playwright he knew--"Rich Little is better at that sort of thing,” he explains. But he goes for what he calls “the essence of the man . . . the way he cared about the human condition. Although many of his plays dealt with sexuality and death, he maintained that those weren’t his main themes. Loneliness was. That is something we can all identify with.

“I think that’s why my little play is successful, and why his great plays are successful.”

Sunday was Tennessee Williams’ birthday. He would have been 78. Like the tragic heroines of his plays--Laura Wingfield and Blanche du Bois--he suffered years of decline and never got a second chance. But no one can deny him his place in history. Or his place in the lives of those who knew him and were affected by him--like Stricklyn.


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