Despair, drunkenness, desire: Southern Rep’s ‘Iguana’ delights

The poet/filmmaker Jean Cocteau once remarked that truly memorable art was “difficult to pick up.” His meaning was that any genuinely complex offering was so multifaceted, so endless in its interpretations, that it defied definition.

Tennessee Williams’ “Night of The Iguana” is just such a work.

Throttled by director Phillip Karnell, Williams’ flawed but stirring minor classic of elusive redemption is given a lurching but thrilling staging.

A co-production of Southern Rep and The Tennessee Williams Literary Fest, this “Iguana” is an imperfect, often downright infuriating, evening but is also never anything less than compellingly watchable.

It boasts deliberately disorienting turns from its three leads Mike Harkins, Troi Bechet and Aimee Hayes, features fine ensemble work and creates a texture of sweat and rot, mostly through David Raphel’s visual haymaker of a set, within the confines of The Art Klub on Elysian Fields.

The play itself has the you-can’t-turn-away-horror of a destructive hurricane. A dramaturgical mess that keeps pulling itself back together, “Iguana” follows disgraced reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Harkins) to the end of his line as a professional tour guide in Mexico of 1940.

Having seduced a young woman in his charge, Shannon veers from his assigned route and drives a bus full of enraged Texas Baptist women to the ramshackle Casa Verde Hotel.

Once off the beaten path, his hope is that the magnificent view and the cooling waters will prove restorative, but the hotel’s proprietress and recently widowed Maxine Faulk (Bechet) has other plans, other guests, and other desires.

Then there’s the mysterious and refined painter Hannah Jelkes (Hayes) and her doddering poet of a grandfather (a magisterial Bob Edes, Jr. as a con-artist Lear) who arrive with only the fantastical belief in the hustle of art.

Amplified by David Rigamer’s pervasive sound design of honking horns, gathering storms and scratching reptiles, Shannon’s desired oasis quickly turns into a nightmarish hangover.

He is harried by his clients’ leader Miss Fellows (a-red-balloon-about-to-burst Tracey Collins) over his incompetence and his conquest of a girl she has marked out as her own.

There is a pair of lusty cabin boys, Pancho and Pedro (played with lascivious leer by Josh Smith and Kyle Woods), the love-starved teen Charlotte Goodall (brought to life as a coquettish monster by Tiffany Wolf), and a duo of tour company men (inhabited by a stuttering Jordan Kaplan and a growling Matt Standley) who prove a Laurel and Hardy of menace.

Topping it all off, a frenzied group of German tourists intoxicated by beer and reports of bombs over London has invaded the hotel.

Incarnated with Teutonic schadenfreude by Andrew Farrier, Rebecca Elizabeth Hollingsworth, Casey Hendershot and Rachel Whitman Groves, they prove a terrorizing Blitzkrieg quartet for Shannon’s travails.

Although he stumbles with staging actual violence, Karnell somehow manages to keep all the narrative threads clear despite the playwright’s underbrush of philosophy, religious symbolism, and love of the lurid. He accomplishes this by controlling tempo with a catch/release approach that wisely takes its grip off the reel when the energy has all but been exhausted.

Crucial expositional monologues involving fallen faith and gentle perversions are done with the lightest touch in contrast to the cacophony that whips throughout the play.

His three leads expertly navigate the intimate.

A neurotic wreck of despair, Harkins conveys just enough of what was formerly decent in Shannon to make us feel his suffering rather than pass judgment on it. His temptress Bechet infuses her Maxine with a generous human sympathy so not to simply disregard her as braying sybarite.

And positioned by Karnell and costume designer Mignon Chavret as the calm eye of the storm, Hayes creates in Hannah both the reality and illusion of hope held by Shannon. Softly lit by Diane Bass, Hayes’ fragile figure belies an unflagging resilence cutting through the shadows of the dark world around her.

Few Williams’ heroines prevail, but this one might endure.

I am not sure everyone will be able to get a grasp on “Iguana.” It slips from me as I write these words. But for those who get their hands around it, they won’t be able to let it go.