A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur — Image courtesy Gremlin Theatre

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Gremlin Theatre
Directed by Jef Hall-Flavin

My first impression as I left the Gremlin Theatre’s production of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Jef Hall-Flavin) was that this was a play about lines. Class lines are perhaps the most obvious of these lines, as we see in the strained interactions between the aspiring-to-be-posh Helena Brookmire (Jane Froiland) and the solidly working class Bodey (Suzanne Warmanen). Also apparent are the corresponding geographical lines of those with wealth and those without, as illustrated by Helena’s attempts to convince Dorothea (Sara Richardson) to stop lodging with Bodey and move with her to a more fashionable but much less practical part of St. Louis. The streetcar, a favorite of Williams’, serves as another sort of line in the play, promising to take those who wish to travel far from the dirt and heat of the city to Creve Coeur Park, a favorite summertime getaway of Bodey and her brother Buddy. So restorative are Creve Coeur’s seemingly magical powers that the line between reality and fantasy often becomes blurred there, something Bodey hopes to use to push Dorothea closer toward a romantic alliance with Buddy, despite Dorothea’s repeated assertions that she is not interested in him. Indeed, it is because of another sort of line that Bodey is insistent that Dorothea become better acquainted with Buddy despite her protests. Bodey, who has accepted the fact that she will likely never be a mother herself, is banking on Buddy and Dorothea having children to whom she can serve as a kind of surrogate mother.

Bodey’s desire for (Dorothea’s) children complicates the relationship between the two women. Although Bodey’s interactions with Dorothea are laced with folksy warmth that feels genuine when compared to Helena’s icier demeanor, it becomes difficult to decipher how much of Bodey’s treatment of Dorothea is motivated by general good will and how much of it is motivated by self-interest. When we consider that, late in the play, Helena reveals that she would like Dorothea to move in with her not only to help with expenses but also because she is desperate to end her nights spent eating dinner alone, we are forced to question, once more, if Helena’s overtures toward Dorothea are entirely mercenary or if there is some desire for human connection motivating them. No matter how one chooses to read Bodey and Helena as characters, their relationships with Dorothea makes one question how and where to draw the line between helping others and helping oneself.

With all of these lines intersecting in the play, perhaps the most urgent one is the line that separates acceptable feminine sexuality from its improper forms. Early in the play, in attempt to explain to Bodey why she is not interested in Buddy, Dorothea confesses to having slept with Ralph Ellis, the principal of the school where she teaches civics and a member of the social elite. When Bodey suggests that Dorothea has crossed the line, Dorothea responds that the love she and Ralph share made the line dissolve. As the play progresses and we learn that Ralph has no intention of marrying Dorothea, it becomes clear that the two lovers interpreted their evening together along drastically different lines.

While not physically present in the play, Buddy and Ralph, the men upon whom Bodey and Dorothea seem to build nearly all their plans, are constantly hovering around the edges. As aforementioned, Bodey spends the duration of the play attempting to interest Dorothea in Buddy while Dorothea simultaneously waits for a telephone call from Ralph. Sophie (Noe Tallen), the unmarried woman who lives above Bodey and Dorothea, is perhaps the only character in the play whose actions are not contingent upon men (a reality compounded by the fact that she has just lost her mother and seems too preoccupied with this to have any other concerns), but this doesn’t save Sophie from becoming a kind of symbol of the horrors of a life without male intervention. We see this when Dorothea vacillates on whether or not to move into the fashionable apartment with Helena and Helena cites Sophie as reason enough to make the move. If she doesn’t try to improve her social status by making herself more attractive to prosperous men, Helena tells Dorothea, she can expect a future no better than Sophie’s.

While Sophie, who finds the apartment her mother died in uninhabitable, is certainly living in both an emotional and physical cage, she is clearly not the only character in the play who is trapped. In fact, be it loneliness, delusion, or unfulfilled dreams, all the women in Creve Coeur literally and metaphorically inhabit confined spaces of one kind or another. Helena mocks Bodey’s stuffed and caged canary, but it functions as a poignant if not wholly unexpected prop in a work by a playwright who often wrote about the many prisons, traps, and closets we find ourselves in. This being said, the fact that the characters in Creve Coeur exist within different cages, some of their own making and some circumstantial, is less interesting to Williams than the question of what the characters do within these cages: how they decorate them, whom they allow to come inside, and what connections they attempt to forge from within them. Indeed, the desire to relate to others despite the bars that work to keep the characters isolated is what motivates nearly all the humor and all the heartbreak in the play: It is what motivates Bodey to show compassion for Sophie, what allows Dorothea to trust Ralph even when she shouldn’t, and what pushes Helena to ask Dorothea to be her roommate. These attempts at connection are flawed and often as self-serving as they are selfless, but the fact that they exist means that hope can be found in a play populated by people who often seem to be in hopeless situations.

Given the sweetness and poignancy of the play, not to mention the mostly likable if sometimes frustrating characters, it is surprising that Creve Coeur isn’t performed more widely than it is. Gremlin’s production is a solid one with Sara Richardson as Dorothea as the clear standout. Richardson is completely believable as a young school teacher who has recently moved from Tennessee to St Louis to find work, adventure, and love. As much as I love the Twin Cities theater scene, accents are often not a strong point of most productions, but Richardson has mastered Dorothea’s sweet southern drawl with such expertise that I was never reminded of the fact that she was an actor playing a part. The other roles are adequately filled, with Warmanen serving as a consistently convincing hardworking middle-aged woman with a mostly good heart. Likewise, Tallen is adept in the role of the emotionally shattered Sophie.

I am not sure if my issue with Froiland’s Helena has more to do with the delivery of her lines or the lines themselves. Certainly Williams wants his audience to understand that Helena disapproves of Bodey. In fact, Williams seems to want his audience to understand this to such an extent that he is rather relentless in his reminders. As a result, Helena is hardly able to open her mouth without commenting upon Bodey’s tacky apartment, small mind, or pathetic lack of refinement. The whole thing feels a bit heavy-handed, and I found myself wondering if there could have been a way to convey this disapproval more subtly. Again, I am not entirely sure if this heavy-handed dynamic was created by the lines themselves or if Froiland’s delivery was a little too emphatically snobbish. I couldn’t help thinking that a truly classy person would have been a bit better at understatement (at least in the 1930s when the play is set). Then again, perhaps Helena’s many exaggerated jabs at Bodey are meant to show that, despite her pretensions, Helena is rather insecure in her class status and must therefore assert her good taste and extensive knowledge of culture at every available moment.

Flaws aside, I am grateful to the Gremlin for staging this under-produced work by Williams, which packaged many of his common themes such as containment, disillusion, and desire in a way I had not seen before. I look forward to seeing how the play is received when the cast presents it at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival in September of this year. What’s more, I hope that Gremlin’s staging of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur will encourage other Twin Cities theaters to seek out Williams’ more obscure work. If this production is any indication, there are further riches to be found.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.