Review: "Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams" Maps the Horizons of a Young Artist

Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams

Written and performed by Jacob Storms

Directed by Alan Cumming

Presented at AMT Theater

354 West 45th St., Manhattan, NYC

February 19-April 2, 2023

Jacob Storms. Photo by Max Ruby
The first thing that Jacob Storms does as the title character in his solo show Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams is to pour himself a drink, a gesture that points both to what would increasingly become a coping mechanism over the course of the playwright's lifetime and to the intimate relation to Williams in which the show positions the spectators. Storms, directed by the illustrious Alan Cumming, himself no stranger to solo theater, delivers his performance as though to an audience of confidantes, even as the show skips deftly forward through time. Anchored by no more than a couple of chairs and a table, Storms enthrallingly whisks the audience from coast to coast and year to year, from Williams having recently submitted work to a playwriting contest under the newly invented nom de plume "Tennessee WIlliams" to his first big theatrical hit.
Tennessee Rising encompasses the years 1939 to 1945, a period during which aspiring professional playwright Tom becomes replaced by Hollywood and Broadway initiate Tennessee while facing struggles related to his family and his sexuality. Storms seasons the play with references to experiences that will become elements of Williams's later plays, providing some additional pleasures to those at least familiar with the Mississippi-born playwright. These same years were also tumultuous, to say the least, for the world at large, and the show draws parallels between the unrest and war within Williams himself and his family and in the nation and across the globe, including at one point a disquisition on American fascism and its "insidious" character that holds just as true now as in Williams's time. We might hope that the battle between Williams's independently-minded sister, Rose, and their puritanical mother is somewhat less timely in its outcomes if not in its character.
Jacob Storms. Photo by Max Ruby
Storms's costuming cleverly evolves over the course of the play in a reflection of the evolving persona of the self-mythologizing Williams, and the lighting and sound design judiciously but impactfully help to mark time and occasionally mood. The mood is often lightened by some dry humor, whether Williams is reminiscing about the inspiration that he took in his twenties from Broadway productions that toured to St. Louis or detailing his difficulties with showbiz personalities once it is his own work being produced. At the same time, his loneliness forms a persistent throughline, and back-to-back losses that he experiences late in the play give rise to some of its most affecting segments. The Williams that emerges through Storms's superb performance, as part of which he impressively embodies Williams's manner of speech and self-presentation, is a cocktail of bravado, discovery, vulnerability, and angst. Watching Tennessee Rising will give you the same sense of excitement that the show's Williams describes upon meeting D. H. Lawrence's widow and her star-studded circle–but without having to write your own plays first.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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