The onset of an imminent storm is never a good omen in literature, on film and on stage. The tempestuous weather invariably brings with it destruction and upheaval. This is the case again in Tennessee Williams’s early work Spring Storm.
On a set created by a fallen house and various other pre-emptive remnants of the terrible storms that are heading the way of the small southern US town of Port Tyler, the town’s younger residents rile against the destiny they are slowly drifting towards.
Michael Thomson’s muscular, manly Dick Miles wants to leave the town behind and feel alive by working the land and using the body he was given. His long-time, though somewhat secret and scandalous lover, Liz White’s Heavenly Critchfield, wants him to settle down so that they can circulate in the higher echelons of society. Of course, they can’t have both. Those higher echelons, the garden parties and country clubs, wouldn’t accept the dirty finger-nailed, straight-talking Dick and he would never cope with their restrictions. It is an impossible situation.
Heavenly has another admirer who can offer her the society life she wants, the rich, somewhat introverted Arthur Shannon (Michael Malarkey), but he has his own issues after begin bullied as a child. He also has his own admirer in the form of Anna Tolputt’s Hertha Neilson, a timid librarian with an urge to break free.
As one might expect, the potent mixture of pre- storm tension, class distinctions and the youthful urgency to escape from their supposed boundaries and find more in life is slowly cranked up by Williams to dramatic effect, even at this early stage in his career. Yet director Laurie Sansom has also mined the play for every gram of humour, making it a somewhat unexpectedly amusing evening. Jacqueline King as Heavenly’s mother Esmerelda dances on the borders of Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances, her desperation to maintain and increase the family’s good name shifting her between heartless and ridiculous, while the date scenes between Heavenly and Arthur are deliciously awkward.
Written while he was in his mid-20s and studying at university, Spring Storm is undoubtedly flavoured by Williams’s own life and concerns; the need to live up to family history, the bullying for being a sissy and the looming worry of mental illness were all present in Williams’s life. Sansom makes Williams present in the action by introducing each new scene with stage directions delivered by voiceover.
Though written in 1937, the Royal & Derngate’s production, staged at the National Theatre, is the piece’s European premiere. Though it could be seen as an interesting insight into the beginnings of one of the world’s great writers – which it undoubtedly is – it is much more than that. The spring storm may bring devastation, but from the audience’s sheltered safety, watching the lightning and hearing the thunder is exhilarating.