Tom Wahl and Nicholas Richbergas William Inge and Tennessee Williams
Those fortunate enough to be in the West Palm Beach area will have a unique theatre opportunity beginning Dec. 8th. Palm Beach Dramaworks is mounting the world premiere of a play by Terry Teachout, Billy and Me, in which he has imagined a tempestuous friendship between two of our most renowned twentieth century playwrights, Tennessee Williams and William (Billy) Inge. This is a major step in the maturation of PBD under the creative direction of its Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes. His vision has been to supplement the company’s acclaimed classics by also producing completely original works from the very beginning through numerous rewrites, collaborations, rehearsals and eventually onto the PBD stage, and even beyond, to New York and as a staple of regional theaters throughout the U.S.
Billy and Me is a memory play narrated by Tennessee Williams. Act I is set in a gay bar in Chicago on New Year’s Eve, 1944, immediately after a pre-Broadway tryout of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Williams is on the ascent in Act I, but Inge is an unhappy theatre critic as well as miserable in his personal life. Seeing The Glass Menagerie that night has inspired Inge to try his hand at play writing. Act II takes place almost 15 years later at Inge's Sutton Place apartment, a few hours after the Broadway premiere of his first flop, A Loss of Roses. Inge has had years of hits, is at the height of his career (and prosperity), while Williams’ decline was already underway. Inge is having difficulty reconciling himself to his first flop as well as his closeted sexuality.
According to Hayes, who is directing Billy and Me and was the inspiration for the play, “the genesis of the idea was while I was directing Picnic, doing research, and was reminded that Inge met Tennessee Williams in 1944, and I began to imagine the intricacy of their relationship, about which little is really known. They must have influenced one another, I thought. They shared similar backgrounds, both being from small towns, had complicated relationships with their mothers, fathers who were frequently absent as they were salesmen, and both were gay, Williams acknowledging it, but Inge self loathing.”
So Hayes suggested the idea of a play about the two famous playwrights to Terry Teachout who was in town for pre-production meetings for his play Satchmo at the Waldorf, which was playing at the end of the same season as Picnic at PBD. Teachout was intrigued. After meeting with Hayes, he flew home when the idea for the structure of the play came to him in an epiphany. “I even had the 2nd’ act nailed, so I knew I was on solid ground. I called Bill and said ‘I have it!’ and went back to West Palm to meet with Bill and we both agreed that we saw the project in the same way and knew we would work together well. After making my directing debut at PBD last season, I know very well that it's a great place to work, a gorgeous theatre full of first-class people. I also know that Bill is a superb director.”
Then soon after the structure was established, Teachout wrote the play in a three day frenzy. That was more than a year ago and since then it has been “workshopped” by PBD, undergoing revisions. As Teachout explained, “workshopping is the modern day replacement for out of town tryouts which used to be the norm.” These workshops have been tirelessly and inspirationally orchestrated by Hayes.
Teachout fills the threadbare historical record of the two playwrights’ personal relationship guided by his knowledge of the men and their plays. Thus the play is "a work of fiction freely based on fact." "It's a play about love, jealousy, and - not to put it too pompously - destiny," said Teachout. "An artist is a person who can't do anything else with his life. Art is his fate: it's that or nothing. But he can't become an artist until he accepts that fate and acknowledges his true nature. That's a big part of what this play is about: the struggle of two great American playwrights to come to terms with who they really were."
I asked him about the difficulties he had in writing the play and he responded “nothing excites an artist more than limitations that must be surmounted and the problem with depicting Inge is how do you warm up to him? How do you make him relatable? But having reviewed more than 1,000 theatrical performances in my career taught me much about how a play works, how you have to make difficult decisions about when action starts and stops.”
There are three actors in the play. Two of them have been with the play ever since the first workshop production, Nicholas Richberg who plays Tennessee Williams, and Tom Wahl as William Inge. Joining those two about half way through the developmental process is veteran PBD actor Cliff Burgess, who plays three roles.
Nicholas Richberg has been involved in several developmental plays, mostly with Zoetic Stage, but he says this experience was “my longest development process, a huge gift to an actor. Terry is the writer, but it allows the actors to contribute and shape it and it’s incredible to see the changes over time.”
Richberg is also an experienced musical performer, appearing in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 1776 last year, and in several Sondheim productions in the past and thinks of both Sondheim and Williams as geniuses in their genres. He has no preference playing musical or drama as long as he is “interpreting the words /music of the author.”
He sees his biggest challenge in this play is to capture the characteristics of Tennessee Williams – usually well known to the audience because Williams was clearly gay, and granted numerous interviews, some while he was obviously drunk. Both he and Wahl worked with a dialogue coach to get their speech patterns right and even so,” these are not impersonations” both opined. But the real challenge goes beyond that Richberg said: “playing a real person, having the audience truly care about him, and what motivated him.”
His favorite line from the play is “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – start with the truth and then make it beautiful.” And that sort of captures the essence of Teachout’s writing he says, “Making the language beautiful, almost like music, poetic.”
“My one wish as an actor was to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and, finally, with Billy and Me, I am in a memory play about Tennessee Williams: it’s as rewarding for an actor as playing Tom.”
Inge is played by Tom Wahl, making his PBD debut. He said “I like the challenge of playing the lesser known (as a public persona) Inge, as I have a free hand in interpreting. I see Inge in a constant struggle, finding himself, starting his career as an actor, turning to teaching, then becoming a critic, and then a playwright, always seeming to being either in the wrong place or in the wrong skin. And when finally he is true to himself, he is disgusted by it.”
Wahl also loved being involved in the workshop experience since the beginning, allowing him to make contributions and growing into his character, the shy, repressed William Inge. Wahl said “although perhaps better known for his other plays and movies, my favorite is Dark at the Top of the Stairs, his last major play.” In addition to his extensive acting experience, Wahl is a versatile voiceover artist and voice actor.
Cliff Burgess has appeared in many PBD productions and although he stepped into the developmental process later than the other two actors, he was able to provide some valuable input “through fresh eyes.” Also as a fledgling playwright himself “the process allowed me to see the director and the playwright in action.”
He plays three characters in the play, the waiter in Act I, the doctor in Act II, and the stage manager in both acts. What he finds fascinating about each is that they are not tangential “as each character has a purpose and each has an impact on Williams and Inge. I play characters ‘of the more mundane world, and supply some comic relief too.’”
Interestingly, Burgess has played Tom in The Glass Menagerie twice in his career and in Inge’s Bus Stop, so he is intimately familiar with their works, and “I recognize the suffering of each and their humanity.”
Billy and Me “inspired by the friendship between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge,” is Directed by William Hayes, PBD’s Producing Artistic Director.
The playwright, Terry Teachout, is drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, has had an uncommonly diverse career. He was a professional jazz bassist for eight years, and has also been a dance and music critic, an editorial writer, and a member of the National Council on the Arts. He has written the libretti for three operas and is the author of numerous books, including Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong. His play Satchmo at the Waldorf was written after the Armstrong biography.
Scenic Design is by Victor Becker, Lighting Design by Paul Black, and Costume Design by Brian O'Keefe. Billy and Me will grace the stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, from December 8 to the 31st with previews on December 6 and 7.
UPDATE: My Review of the play now posted
UPDATE: My Review of the play now posted