By Jim Gilles
Currently on stage at the Gloria Gifford Conservatory Theatre on Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood is a set of one-act plays, two by Tennessee Williams and one by Jason Miller. Stage director and well-known actress Gloria Gifford manages this Conservatory as a school for acting which also puts on full-length productions. This set of one-act plays includes Tennessee Williams’ 1946 play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton and his shorter 10-minute-long Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry (1949). As Williams once explained: “The peak of my virtuosity was in the one-act plays. Some of which are like firecrackers in a rope.” The same might be said of Jason Miller’s Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer (1973), a 50-minute-long play that deals with people’s dreams and disappointments in love and in life.
The evening’s performances began with 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, written in 1946 by Tennessee Williams, who referred to the play as “a Mississippi Delta comedy.” In it, Jake Meighan, a middle-aged, shady cotton gin owner burns down the mill of Silva Vicarro, a rival in the cotton business. His rival, who knows what happened but cannot prove it, seeks revenge by seducing Jake’s young, frail, 19-year-old wife, Flora. Elia Kazan’s controversial 1956 film Baby Doll was based on the play. The setting of the play in Gloria Gifford’s production calls for a set appropriate to a front porch in a Southern Mississippi Delta home, complete with a canopy porch swing, but Gifford has cast three Black actors from her company who seem to embrace the Southern sensibility of the late 1940s but are not Southern white folk. The play was filmed for television for the General Motors Drama Series in the 1950s with Peter Boyle, Leslie Ann Warren & Ray Sharkey.
But in this production, the character of Flora Meighan is the 19-year-old bride of a middle-aged cotton mill owner Jake Meighan (Haile D’Alan). Flora, whose bubbly flirtatious nature washes over the sexually-charged dialogue, as portrayed brilliantly by actress Amber Daney, whose body language both hides and reveals what she really knows about the Fire at the rival Syndicate Plantation cotton gin. Flora enthrones herself on her favorite porch swing as a kind of simplistic Aphrodite whose effuses erotic charm to men. It is no accident that the opening quotation attached by Tennessee Williams to the play is from Sappho: “Now Eros shakes my soul, a wind on the mountains, falling on the oaks.”
Flora seems to half understand her husband’s role in causing the fire at the rival cotton mill and that she is supposed to claim that Jake Meighan was with her all night at home and never drove anywhere in his Chevy. Jake leaves to attend to his cotton mill, which is going to handle some 27 cartloads of cotton freshly arrived at the Syndicate Plantation and due to be processed at the mill – seeing as how the competition is no longer in business. This is when the slick Italian Silva Vicarro (Keith Walker), supervisor at the Syndicate Plantation mill, shows up and flirts with Flora in an attempt to get some information about the fire at his mill and determine the extent of Jake’s culpability. How far does the flirting go? It seems that Walker’s revenge is to seduce Flora and completely take advantage of her bubbly nature.
What makes the one-act play interesting is its place in the oeuvre of works by Tennessee Williams, whose message was that people may display acceptable behavior “but they forget to be proper and correct when they are under pressure.”
When Williams returned to the same play later and explained it into his screenplay for Eliz Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), the expanded play generated considerable controversy largely due to its implicit sexual themes. Despite moral objections to the film, it was largely well received by critics, and earned numerous accolades; Kazan won the Golden Globe for Best Director and the film was nominated for four other Golden Globe awards, as well as four Academy Awards and four BAFTA Awards.
Tucked in the middle of the evening’s entertainment is Moony’s Kid Don’t Cry, a 10-minute one-act play also by Tennessee Williams about a big, strapping man named Moony who is laughed at by his fellow factory-workers as a “star-gazer.” There is a bit of the tough working-class Stanley Kowalski in the Moony, played by Chris Jones. Once a wood-cutter in the northern woods of Canada, Moony has settled down in a large industrial American city with his wife, Jane (played by Jade Ramirez), and their child, who is sleeping in a dresser drawer, since they cannot afford a crib. Moony is discontent, yearning for something more than the life he leads “down here in the mud.”
Restless and unable to sleep, Moony tries to engage Jane in his fond memories of their past and his fantasies for running away from the city for good. He recalls the seductive moment when he first danced with Jane – her hair in curls and wearing a red silk dress. But pregnancy and the baby keep Jane at home now and unable to work to help support the household. Jane cannot share her husband’s yearning for hopping a train and riding for adventure elsewhere. She is exhausted from the immediate realities of impoverished motherhood. Moony must choose between fleeing by himself for the wild unknown or finding a different kind of hope in the responsibilities of his existing family life.
The evening was polished off with a one-act play Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer (1973), a play about lost illusions by actor-playwright Jason Miller. Victor Spinelli (Danny Siegel), a frustrated athlete who now works for his domineering, very old-world Italian-American father. Victor finds his greatest satisfaction in coaching a little league baseball team. He is given to bluster, but beneath this he is both sensitive and touchingly vulnerable. His relationship with his wife Barbara (Keturah Hamilton) is growing cool. Barbara is preoccupied with acting in amateur community theatre, and has her “theatre friends” who talk about books and literature when visiting. The issue of Victor’s temper arises at the modus operandi in the play, as it seems that Victor slugged another adult in the face at a Little League baseball game. Barbara has little patience with what occurred and its impact on Victor will soon become serious.
While Victor is out of the house, a neighbor lady, Mrs. Martin (Justine Estrada), stops by to see Victor. She tells Barbara about how her little son is made fun of by the other boys and even the adults. He is really not good at baseball at all. As Barbara packs up to leave for her theatre performance, Victor arrives home and they wrangle about Victor’s assault at the game, the way he also mistreats Mrs. Martin’s son, and the fact that Victor is still working for his father marketing spaghetti sauce instead of doing something on his own. As Barbara leaves, Victor rages around the house, ready to burn some of his wife’s favorite literary classics and bemoans his failed career as a professional baseball player, despite his own father’s passion for baseball. Soon afterward, Mrs. Martin arrives to speak to Victor about her son who is treated as a bench-warmer at games. Victor talks about himself quite a bit, brags about his old baseball trophies, and tells the story of how his father once caught a home-run hit by Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium After a couple of drinks, Victor discovers that Mrs. Martin is a wife abandoned by her husband. We come to understand that Victor’s dislike for his wife’s bookishness is a reflection of his own limitations. We begin to sense the bitterness and sense of failure both characters have about themselves leaves some hope for growing into better persons.
Jason Miller was at the height of his career as an actor and a playwright in 1973. He won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play for his play That Championship Season, a reflection of Miller’s own interest in baseball. That same year of 1973, Miller was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the troubled priest Father Damien Karras in the 1973 horror film The Exorcist, a role he reprised in The Exorcist III. He later became artistic director of the Scranton Public Theatre in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where The Championship Season was set. His own film career was sporadic, as he preferred to work in regional theater.
All three one-act plays were directed by Gloria Gifford, who runs the Gloria Gifford Conservatory for the Performing Arts at her location at 6502 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood on Theatre Row. Gloria made her acting debut on Broadway in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice called The Merchant and was discovered and cast opposite Richard Pryor in Neil Simon’s star-studded, Academy Award winning California Suite (1978). She moved to Los Angeles and has been starring on television and in feature films ever since. She teaches acting classes and stages full productions at the venue. Recently she directed Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra – A Musical, which received the NAACP Theatre Award for Best Director of a play.