It’s early July. The summer is hot, the theater season is at a lull and it has been two years since Girl Friday Productions mounted a show at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage.
So, like those rare creatures in nature that emerge only once every other year for a brief season, the company headed by Kirby Bennett is back, with Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real,” opening Friday.
The last time out, in 2011, Girl Friday received an Ivey Award for Craig Johnson’s production of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene.” It was the kind of large-cast, iconic (and infrequently performed) piece favored by Bennett and her confrères.
“Camino Real” (which the playwright instructs should be pronounced CA-min-o Reel), has not been done locally since a University of Minnesota production in the early 1980s. The Guthrie pulled the show from its 2001 season when the scheduled director had to pull out. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago did an adaptation in 2012.
Ben McGovern, who will direct Girl Friday’s production, admits there is a reason “Camino Real” seldom makes it to the stage.
“It has a cast of thousands,” he said.
Seriously, there are 40 listed characters, who will be played by 14 actors. McGovern’s cast includes some Girl Friday regulars such as Johnson, John Middleton, Sam Landman and Bennett herself. Also along for the ride are Eric Knutson (Jim Taylor in History Theatre’s “Lombardi”); Sara Richardson, who has distinguished herself perhaps most notably with Pillsbury House’s “Buzzer”; and Kimberly Richardson, a dancer and actor with a wonderfully crazy streak.
Reveals itself uneasily
Beyond the size, though, “Camino Real” never has fostered an eagerness among theater folk to take on Williams’ experiment in allegory.
“It’s a hard play,” said McGovern. “We’ve been trying for a year to see what it is. You can’t play this play halfway. He opened his heart in a brave and poetic way.”
“Camino Real” juts out on the shelf of Williams plays, an odd cousin to the neatly naturalistic “The Glass Menagerie” or “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Critics and audiences were not up for it when Elia Kazan mounted the show on Broadway in 1953. Appreciation has grown since, including the signature bouquet delivered by Clive Barnes in 1970. After seeing a Broadway revival, Barnes wrote that he was inclined to agree with people who felt “Camino Real” was Williams’ best play.
“It is a play that seems to be torn out of a human soul, a tale told by an idiot signifying a great deal of suffering and a great deal of gallantry,” Barnes wrote in the New York Times.
Regardless, the revival only lasted 52 performances — eight fewer than the 1953 original.
Williams wrote the play following the early works that had pushed him to the forefront of American playwrights with something to say. He was living in Mexico and feeling somewhat confined both physically by illness and psychically by his success. What could he do for his next act?
He pushed his sense of drama outside the comfortable zone of realism in “Camino Real” and dabbled with bald metaphors that spoke poetically and directly. It is set in a fictional police state where a small town’s central fountain (“the fountain of humanity”) has dried up and street sweepers come through routinely to collect the dead.
Williams populated the play with legendary characters, led by a tired boxer named Kilroy, Don Quixote, Esmeralda, Casanova and a fellow named Gutman who is fashioned after actor Sydney Greenstreet. Plot is irrelevant, as these rogues simply plod through, disconnected, in some kind of limbo or purgatory. The playwright said the play represented “nothing more nor less than the time and world that I live in.” Whereas “Menagerie,” “Streetcar” and the others were incisions into specifically human stories, “Camino Real” was Williams’ stab at explaining the universe, writ large.
“When you read it, you say, ‘That’s an impossible play,’ ” said McGovern.
Hmmm. And say again why you want to stage it?
“There’s an incredible message,” McGovern said. “He’s saying life feels hard because it is, but life is also beautiful if we try to make it beautiful.”