Aurora Theatre's 'Eccentricities' explores a curious, glorious hill

Photo: 'The Eccentricities of a Nightingale' follows Alma Winemiller, played by Beth Wilmurt, who grapples (as does her father) with her peculiar ways. 'Eccentricities' features a wealth of strange characters, such as Amy Crumpacker's Mrs. Winemiller.
Simone Anne Lang/Staff
'The Eccentricities of a Nightingale' follows Alma Winemiller, played by Beth Wilmurt, who grapples (as does her father) with her peculiar ways. 'Eccentricities' features a wealth of strange characters, such as Amy Crumpacker's Mrs. Winemiller.

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The Eccentricites of a Nightinggale
The Eccentricites of a Nightinggale

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There are certain pleasures one comes to expect from a Tennessee Williams play. Ladies fanning themselves in the southern summer heat, gentlemen with neatly-parted hair - and just enough madness to keep things exciting. Now showing "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale," directed by Tom Ross, Aurora Theatre Company brings all of these things and more to scratch that particular Williams itch.

The beautifully-detailed costume design of Laura Hazlett transports us to the elegant formality of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, 1916. Parlors, bedrooms and a town square melt into each other with a lazy air, following the story of the preacher's daughter who fell for the accomplished-young-doctor-next-door, even though she knew things wouldn't turn out right.

"Eccentricities" is actually a revised version of Williams' "Summer and Smoke" (1947), which he continued to work on for 17 years until the new version premiered in Dallas in 1964. This work, then, combines the styles of a younger and an older Williams.

The play opens with young Alma Winemiller, played by Beth Wilmurt, singing at the Fourth of July festivities in her small town. (As expected, the ladies of the town fan themselves languorously in the summer heat.) Alma soon reveals herself to be, as those about her agree, "slightly peculiar," talking a bit too much and a bit too nervously, hanging out with the other town weirdos. Her father (Charles Dean) cautions her against these bad habits and little mannerisms: "Eccentric people are not happy," he warns. But happiness, it turns out, is difficult to pin down in Glorious Hill.

This "Eccentricities" has plenty in it to laugh about - Alma's bizarre collection of friends meeting in a club to discuss their "similar interests," or the way Alma deals with the often awkward and humiliating process of falling in love. As things progress, however, this good humor melts away into more opaque and unsettling themes.

As Mrs. Winemiller, Alma's disturbed mother, Amy Crumpacker fills the stage even when she lurks in a corner, always dancing along the line of lucidity and madness. The other mother in the play, Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo), is as maddening as Mrs. Winemiller is mad. As she fawns and fondles her son, the young doctor, it's not hard to imagine the ghost of Freud watching from the audience, nodding knowingly.

Unfortunately, twinkling eyes and a thick, sultry mustache were not enough to enliven the performance of Thomas Gorrebeeck as John Buchanan, Jr. In moments of awkwardness and pleasure alike, his vocal range stuck in the "I am a Tennessee Williams Gentleman" register.

Near the end of the play, as the relationship between Alma and John is supposed to thicken and congeal, Wilmurt and Gorrebeeck's chemistry is, at best, confusing. Of course, the characters themselves are confused about their relationship, but the intensity of their interactions in the closing scenes seems to lose some steam. Ross' direction, however, is a delight to watch, as the star-crossed lovers flit across the stage in pursuit or escape of each other.

Alma's transformation for the final scene is one of the most captivating moments of the show. Again, her costume is stunning, and does much to shed light on the character's startling change. With music and lighting adding to this production like cherries atop a summer ice cream sundae, this "Eccentricities" is a charming celebration of the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth.

Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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