A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, a late-career Tennessee Williams play, had its New York premiere in 1979, at the Hudson Guild Theater. Almost forty years later, it is receiving its second New York production, at the Theatre at St. Clements courtesy of La Femme Theatre Productions, and under the direction of Austin Pendleton. The result is more than a mere curiosity for Williams enthusiasts: it is a stylish and enjoyable, though flawed, production, which shows that there is real power in Williams’ largely comic play, even if this staging is ultimately unable to fully capture it.
The setting is a cramped, garishly decorated apartment in a working-class neighborhood of St. Louis in 1937, on a hot June Sunday (scenic design by Harry Feiner). Dorothea (Jean Lichty)—a single schoolteacher described as “marginally youthful” by Williams—will be recognizable to anyone who has seen a Williams play before: southern, high-strung, strong-willed, and propelled by romantic delusions. Her roommate is Bodey (Kristine Nielsen), a middle-aged German-American woman, bursting with energy and manic goodwill, despite having worked six days a week at International Shoe for the last twenty years. Bodey wants to protect Dorothea from her delusions, but has a few of her own—namely, that Dorothea will marry her beer-swilling, cigar-smoking, overweight brother, and produce nieces and nephews whom Bodey can dote on. The Creve Coeur of the title is the lake where Bodey wants to have a Sunday picnic with Dorothea and her brother. She speaks about Creve Coeur as a kind of Shangri-la, a place where anything is possible.
But Dorothea won’t go to Creve Coeur because she is anxiously awaiting a phone call that everyone but her knows will never come: the would-be caller, Ralph Ellis, is the principal at her school, and on a recent date Dorothea “gave herself” to him on the reclining seat of his sedan. Despite his being younger and coming from the country-club set, Dorothea believes with unwavering certainty that he is ready to embark on a serious relationship with her.
Helena (Annette O’Toole), a snobbish colleague of Dorothea’s, arrives unannounced, clashes with Bodey, and tries to arrange for Dorothea to join her in a lease for an apartment in a more stylish part of town. The upstairs neighbor, Miss Gluck (Polly McKie), in a heavy depression after the death of her mother, shows up to be tended to by Bodey, as is their morning ritual, and a fair amount of chaos ensues among the group. Even in her mannered unpleasantness, Helena does elicit sympathy when she describes her loneliness, hinting at what might lie in the future for Dorothea, who is busy planning an illusory future with the absent Ralph.
Nielsen is a pleasure to watch, not only for her comic timing, but for the fierce tenderness which she imbues Bodey with, making a full character out of what could have been a caricature in a lesser performer’s hands. Despite the small but rather aggravating flaw that Dorothea’s bedroom is sometimes depicted as separated from the rest of the apartment by a wall which occasionally seems to conveniently disappear, Pendleton’s direction is on point, especially in managing the play’s tricky balance between zany comedy and heartrending drama. The main problem is Lichty’s uneven and uncertain performance, a not insignificant portion of which is nearly inaudible. Dorothea’s illusions giving way to harsh reality should be, if not shattering, then deeply poignant. While there’s a wisp of that poignancy at the production’s end, I am left hoping the play resurfaces in New York before another forty years pass by.