BACK STAGE WEST
June 22, 2000
by Rob Kendt
When the defrocked minister Shannon turns back to look at Hannah Jelkes in the final moments of The Night of the Iguana, he tells Maxine, the gal pal he's joining for a swim and a probable affair, "I want to remember that face. I won't see it again."
That's all Shannon says by way of description--"that face." But when I saw the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's wrenching, lyrical production a few weeks ago, I must have had some of kind of hallucination. I swear I heard another line of dialogue describing the image of Hannah, standing in a doorway of the Costa Verde Hotel, smoking a cigarette and looking up at the stars, as something along the lines of "a picture of a saint in a cathedral." At the time, it seemed an apt and moving comparison.
I've since discovered there is no such line of dialogue in Night of the Iguana (which I'd never read before seeing it). But there is a stage direction at Hannah's first entrance that reads: "She suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint." A later stage direction refers to her as looking "like a medieval sculpture of a saint." Had Tennessee Williams somehow spoken to me directly through director Penny Metropulos' soulful rendition of his last great play?
It's just as possible that Suzanne Irving, who plays the not-quite-earthbound artist/hustler Hannah, incarnates Williams' stage direction so perfectly that it is she who achieved this extraordinary feat of communication. She's a lean, fine-featured woman with an oval face and a sliver of a mouth; one could call her affect patrician, especially with the prim Nantucket dialect she gives Hannah. But that would overlook the tapering limbs and eerie poise that give her the timeless look, indeed, of a religious icon--or, as Shannon calls her, "Miss thin-standing-up Female-Buddha."
This same strangely familiar physiognomy also seared into memory her performance as the ghostly aviator figure in Tongue of a Bird, last year at OSF. Irving's laser-like power and precision is of course not merely a matter of appearance or vocal quality, but she does seem to be one of those actors whose instrument is so integrally fused to her technique that she appears to be doing something entirely her own, something either less or more than acting per se. It's very easy to underrate this kind of actor, especially in the midst of a company of powerhouses and chameleons like OSF's--but the proof is in the remembering.
There's not just that penultimate moment Shannon consciously tries to remember, thus also sealing it for us. There is also the offhandedly meticulous way she brews poppy-seed tea over a little fold-out burner, or the way she warms to Shannon's dubious attentions, emerging from Hannah's flinty spinster shell to luxuriate in a little soul exchange--though even this emergence has a measure of painstaking delicacy about it.
This last may be the key ingredient Irving brings to Hannah: a reserve that suggests, sometimes slyly or coyly, stores of feeling not to be wasted or freely spent but saved for those most in need, like her doddering poet grandfather Nonno or the hapless, damaged Shannon. Though Hannah is flawed and has her own lessons to learn, it is her role in the end to deliver a kind of benediction for the dying world around her. Hannah embodies nothing less than divine grace, and it's to Suzanne Irving's credit that she handles this tall order so unsentimentally and, well, gracefully.