Guild Hall is presenting a virtual staged reading of “Portrait of Tennessee Williams,” starring Mercedes Ruehl, Harris Yulin, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, and Tedra Millan, its first event since the beginning of the pandemic.
This evening will shine a light on the brilliance of one of America’s most impactful playwrights, rewarding viewers with an informal and intimate experience with four astonishing actors in a virtual event exclusive to Guild Hall.
Arranged by Harris Yulin and Jack Canfora and directed by Yulin, the reading is entirely scripted from Williams’s essays, letters, journals, and plays. There will also be a Q&A after the performance with Harris Yulin.
The evening is an iteration of something Yulin brought to the Guild Hall and Avram stages in 2011, for the centenary of Williams’s birth.
“I can’t believe that was nine years ago already,” Yulin said.
Yulin (“Ozark”) directed a production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Amy Irving and Ebon Moss-Bachrach, which served to re-open the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall after major renovations in 2009. Yulin has directed many readings at Guild Hall, with stars such as Eli Wallach, Dianne Wiest, Edward Asner, and F. Murray Abraham, including last season’s sold-out reading of Jules Feiffer’s “A Bad Friend,” which celebrated the playwright’s 90th birthday.
Yulin is a master interpreter of the work of Tennessee Williams, and he brings his prodigious knowledge, experience, and passion to this project.
“Tennessee writes a lot about isolation, even physical isolation, and right now we all have that in common,” Yulin said. “It’s an opportunity to present that burden in him and align it now with kindred souls.”
But it’s about more than that, Yulin explained. Why has Williams’s work had the resiliency it has through the past eight decades?
“Besides the fact that it’s good?” said Yulin. The eloquence, no matter what the subject, is part of it. “His language is a manifestation of him. Tennessee really changed theater when he came along. ‘Glass Menagerie’ was a real bomb — in the good sense of the word,” he said, laughing.
“The Glass Menagerie” was Williams’s first huge success, and having the character Tom (Williams’s real first name) offer, at the beginning of the play, that what was to follow was shot through his own particular prism of memory, was transformative. “That poetic sensibility, that lyrical ability of his, was unseen and unheard before,” said Yulin.
“It kind of blew up conventional theater, in a way. He and Arthur Miller changed the American stage — from ‘Glass Menagerie,” and then ‘All My Sons,’ and then ‘Streetcar,’ and then ‘Death of a Salesman,’ and on and on,” he said. “Two extremely different writers, but both wonderful. Tennessee’s talent and ability were lyric.”
Later works, like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” continued Williams’s success, along with dozens of other works, but it was an essay of his, “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair,” in a book called “Where I Live” that affected Yulin the most.
“I was astonished by it,” Yulin said. “The prose was so brilliant. There’s a book of Tennessee’s collected stories where Gore Vidal provided the introduction, and Gore said Tennessee loved Chekhov. He allowed that maybe Chekhov was a greater short story writer, but then he said that Tennessee had something even rarer — a narrative tone that was absolutely irresistible. He said that the only other American writer that he thought had that was Mark Twain.”
And like Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Twain, where he famously had so much information on the author stored away that he could perform his legendary one-man show and have it be slightly different each time, Yulin has changed up “Portrait of Tennessee Williams” as the years have passed.
“It starts when he was 14,” he said. Yulin said the work goes until about the mid-’60s, keeping Williams alive as he would most likely prefer to be remembered.
“Guild Hall has so much enormous potential to do what I like, which is make theater, and I’m so happy to collaborate with Mercedes, who is one of the greatest actors in America; with Ebon, who was superb as Tom in ‘The Glass Menagerie;’ and Tedra, who was wonderful in last year’s production of Feiffer’s ‘A Bad Friend,’’ Yulin said.
Tickets for the live May 16 event at 8 PM are available at www.guildhall.org.
They are free, but donations to Guild Hall are “greatly appreciated at this time,” according to a press release.