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A fallen pastor’s spirited revival

Times Theater Critic

If the test of a successful revival is communicating a play’s essence, A Noise Within’s production of “The Night of the Iguana” should be heartily applauded. The deep spiritual grappling that animates Tennessee Williams’ drama is soul shaking, though the staging itself, it must be said, could be less rocky.

Ibsen once observed, “To live is to battle with trolls in heart and mind; to write is to sit in judgment on oneself.” And that is exactly what Williams achieves with the painfully complex Rev. Shannon (Geoff Elliott), a character struggling to discover a more authentic morality in the wake of his umpteenth nervous breakdown.

The year is 1940, and a whiff of apocalypse is in the air. “Locked out” of his church for committing “fornication and heresy,” Shannon survives by giving bus tours to rigidly pious American ladies.

Battling alcoholism and his own carnal weaknesses, he’s leading a virulently demanding sightseeing group through Mexico.

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Judith Fellowes (Julia Silverman, humorously channeling a bureaucratic Margaret Hamilton) assumes the role of Shannon’s foil on the trip.

A rabid moralizer (and possibly a closeted lesbian), she is determined that Charlotte (Courtney DeCosky), the flirty teenager she’s taken a protective interest in, not end up in the “defrocked” reverend’s bed again.

Maxine (Deborah Strang), the lusty manager of a bohemian inn on a tropical hilltop, where the Baptist tourists take an unwelcome detour, is earthiness personified.

A recent widow, she looks longingly on her handsome old friend Shannon, wondering if they could perhaps navigate the fearsome slope of middle age together. Sure, this minister’s mind might be a haunted castle, but Maxine believes she’s woman enough to banish its demons.

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Hannah Jelkes (Jill Hill), a penniless New England painter traveling with her decrepit 97-year-old poet father (Tom Fitzpatrick), has no desire to redeem Shannon for herself. Rebuffing his tentative advances, this wandering spinster offers him instead the chance to embrace his vulnerable humanity by liberating a captured iguana, which is being fattened for slaughter.

The production, directed by Michael Murray, has a refreshing clarity, though it’s not always gracefully staged. Scenic designer Sara Ryung Clement does an impressive job of creating the public space of the hotel, but the back of the set, where the guest rooms are supposed to be, is too sketchily defined for the show’s lumbering logistics.

The performances, while consistently attention-grabbing, are often strained. It’s as though the theatrical volume is continually being cranked up in a way that threatens to blow the speakers -- a problem that could have been corrected with suppler leadership.

Still, Williams’ desperate candor and lush lyricism shine through.

Elliott doesn’t allow Shannon’s madness many pianissimo moments -- the lunatic clamor is unrelenting -- but he communicates the boisterous inner turmoil of someone who has been looking for God in all the wrong places.

Strang, who brings a coffee-like pungency to Maxine, nicely bridges the gap between the bawdy and the tender. And although Hill’s Hannah comes off as a bit too young and stiffly mannered, the scene in which she helps Shannon find the stamina to endure his suffering has all the healing poignancy we seek from Williams’ fugitive worlds.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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‘The Night

of the Iguana’

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: See www.anoisewithin.org for full schedule.

Ends: May 25

Price: $36-$40

Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1

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Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes


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