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Tennessee Williams festival makes literature local

By: Jessica Meszaros

What images does the name Tennessee Williams conjure?

The Mississippi Delta from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”? The New Orleans tenement made famous in “A Streetcar Named Desire”? What about St. Louis? Or more locally, Creve Coeur?

If those last two don’t come to mind, they should. The playwright grew up in St. Louis and set a one-act play in Creve Coeur.

“A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” was written by Williams late in his career as a companion piece to another short work titled “Demolition Downtown.” The first was written in 1976; the latter was published in Esquire in 1971. The play was revised multiple times and performed by casts in Charleston and New York. It also is proported to be the inspiration for a 1980s’ sitcom.

On May 9-19, it will be performed by local cast members as part of the fourth annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis.

Founded in 2015 by lifelong casting director Carrie Houk, the festival celebrates Williams’ local influence.

“In 2010, I got a grant from the Regional Arts Commission to produce a play that I loved,” Houk said. “I love Tennessee Williams, and have ever since I was a little kid. The play was called “Stairs to the Roof.” It was a little-known play, and I fell in love with it. It takes place in St. Louis, where Williams spent 19 formative years of his life.”

The production involved local groups, such as St. Louis Ballet and Circus Flora, and a score composed by Jazz St. Louis. The three-week run sold out, and Houk was inspired to create the festival.

“I never really understood why St. Louis didn’t honor Williams, considering that he spent so much of his life here,” Houk said. “St. Louis, no matter if he loved living here or not … it still influenced so much of his work. Other than the statue at Euclid and McPherson that Harry Weber did, you don’t really see any signs of Williams here.”

The 2019 festival will include three productions: “A Lovely Day for Creve Coeur,” “Dear Mr. Williams” and “The Night of the Iguana.” Guided tours, written tributes and a jazz concert inspired by the era also are featured.

In four years, the festival and its productions have received multiple accolades. In January 2019, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was awarded the Arts Startup of the Year by the Arts and Education Council.

The festival’s 2018 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” received seven St. Louis Theater Circle awards. Tim Ocel, director of “Streetcar,” will return to direct 2019’s production of “The Night of the Iguana.”

Of “A Lovely Day for Creve Coeur,” Houk said the play offers a slightly more light hearted tone in a setting much closer to home.

“It’s not produced very much, but it has some local appeal,” Houk said.

The plot centers around the lives of four women [Dorothea, Bodey, Miss Gluck and Helena] as they plan a picnic to Creve Coeur Lake and cope with feelings of loneliness, jealousy and lost love in a Central West End apartment circa the mid-1930s.

Kelley Weber, Ellie Schwetye, Maggie Wininger and Julie Layton of “A Lovely Sunday For Creve Coeur.”

A legend persists that the play served as partial inspiration for the NBC sitcom “The Golden Girls,” which also featured a cast of four women navigating the complexities of life, mostly while gathered around a cheesecake in their Miami kitchen. Both casts feature four leads, and some characters share similar names and personalities.

Similarities aside, Houk said what makes the play unique isn’t its alleged ties to the sitcom, but its emphasis on human connections.

“It’s a lovely one-act about four women looking for connections, friendship and family, so to speak, one Sunday afternoon in a flat off Enright Avenue,” Houk said.

Williams has used local settings as inspiration for multiple works. He attended Soldan High School in St. Louis as a teen and later referenced the setting in “The Glass Menagerie.”

“Williams has a whole cache of beautiful one-acts, and many of them take place here,” Houk said. “There are many places people associate with Williams … New Orleans, Key West, Mexico. We’re trying to remind them that most of his work wouldn’t be what it was if he hadn’t spent 19 years here. People don’t really realize he had a huge body of work beyond the top five plays that we all know. A lot of it just marvelous, and it needs to be seen and be produced. That’s why we’re here.”

The main cast of “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur” features Kelley Weber, Ellie Schwetye, Maggie Wininger and Julie Layton. The production will be directed by Kari Ely. It will open at the Grand Hall at The Grandel Theater, 3610 Grandel Square, on May 9 and run through May 11.

For more information on the festival or tickets, visit twstl.org.

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