Theater Review - Drama queen

Who else but Tennessee Williams would have written a play with the Southern Gothic title Eccentricities of a Nightingale? Williams wrote it twice, in fact, first exploring a bittersweet small-town romance under the title Summer and Smoke, then revising the characters and ideas several decades later with the new name. Neighborhood Playhouse’s production shows Nightingale more respect than Williams gave to the play’s better, earlier version.

The title refers to Alma Winemiller (Lily Yancey), a voice teacher and church singer derisively nicknamed “the nightingale of the Delta” in her Mississippi hometown. The town treats Alma like a virtual outcast because of her overly dramatic behavior and frequent attacks of “palpitations.” Nevertheless, she longs for the attentions of brilliant young doctor John Buchanan (Nevin Miller), although the golden boy from a wealthy family is out of her league.

Williams makes obvious symbols out of birds and fires, and he indicts small-town conformity with a heavy hand. Fortunately, some of Nightingale’s actors strive for a balanced subtlety. Yancey’s breathless delivery turns Alma’s voice into a babbling brook, but the actress makes the role sympathetic even when she’s on the brink of hysteria. Shawna Tucker shows similar restraint as Alma’s deranged mother by underplaying most of her crazed qualities so her noisy outbursts are more alarming. But Miller makes John such a wholesome boy-next-door type that we don’t quite accept his scientific genius or intimations at having a dark side.

Director Barbara Cole displays a sensitivity to the different agendas and aspirations of the characters, although some sexual tensions become too obvious. Pat Bell makes John’s mother an intimidating small-town dowager, but a private scene with her son becomes ickily flirtatious. “Let me feel your footsies,” she says, almost incestuously. More ambiguity would enrich the play’s final scene and its grim sexual transaction evocative of the fall of Blanche Dubois.

In Nightingale, the playwright is all hot and bothered over the idea of small-town repression. But Neighborhood Playhouse’s production proves most effective when it turns down the thermostat on the overheated writing. It makes you wonder what the ensemble could have done with a script as controlled and moving as Summer and Smoke instead.

Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through June 29 at Neighborhood Playhouse, 430 W. Trinity Place. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. $12-$18. 404-373-5311.