Local director reflects a modern pivot in Tennessee Williams' play Something Unspoken

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In directing the latest Northern Light Theatre production, Trevor Schmidt feels as if he’s discovered a secret key that opens a surprising, and yet somehow perfect, new interpretation of a lesser-known work by playwright Tennessee Williams.

Written in 1958, it’s a two-hander starring Patricia Darbasie and Davina Stewart that plumbs power relations between two women living in the Deep South in the middle of the last century.

Williams wrote it to star two white women — one the privileged employer of the other. But in casting Darbasie, who is Black, in the role of the employee, Schmidt has teased out another layer of meaning in the play. Williams — one of the most famous American writers — is renowned for spare and brilliant scripts that say so much more than what is at the surface, so there’s room for just this sort of rich interpretation.

A précis

Stewart plays Cornelia, a wealthy Louisiana society matron and indomitable force in her community who is running for the coveted position of Regent of the Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization devoted to honouring the memory of the Confederate side of the U.S. Civil War. Grace is Cornelia’s secretary, a meek widow who for 15 years has done whatever Cornelia wants her to do. Well, more or less.

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Now, even as Cornelia is on the brink of a personal victory (or defeat, depending on the vote), she is also keen to take a stand in her relationship with Grace. While the exact nature of the relationship is, naturally, unspoken, it’s clear the two women are caught in the web of a love that dare not speak its name. Cornelia, aggressive and masculine in her approach (right down to giving Grace roses to mark an anniversary) wants her secretary to acknowledge the undercurrents of their relationship. Grace insists that some things are better left unspoken.

Williams is famous for tackling gay themes at a time when repressive laws against homosexuality constrained not just behaviour, but art. His 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, simmers with repression, as does A Streetcar Named Desire. But love between two women was even less a feature of cultural fare in the 1950s. Add in the issue of race, and there’s a lot not to talk about in Something Unspoken.

As Darbasie points out, if you were a black woman in the south in the 1950s, you were probably a maid. In being a secretary, Grace has achieved something special. She lives in her employer’s mansion, protected from many of the unpleasant realities of her cohort. For Grace, there’s a lot to lose in a potential misstep.

“(The secretary job) affords a person of colour a certain amount of status and economic comfort, but at what cost?” says Darbasie in a pre-show interview via Zoom. “So even with the freedoms (Grace) is afforded because of the relationship, it’s still bound. How much do I choose to push the boundary and how much do I not? And that’s the unspoken.”

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Stewart, also on the Zoom call, elaborates on the dynamic between Cornelia and Grace.

Love and power

“There is always this fine line between the two of them. Cornelia treats Grace as her companion, but also as her secretary, her employee. There is a game all the time … and Cornelia always has the power.”

Love, however, is known to shake up traditional power relationships, and, in theory, can also transcend time, place and race. But disruptive moves are rarely without consequence (just ask Meghan and Harry). Something Unspoken raises the question of the cost for Cornelia should she find herself able to wrestle truth out into the open. What would the Daughters of the Confederacy think of her relationship with Grace?

Something Unspoken is a short work (this production is about 45 minutes) that was conceived by Williams as part of a two-play performance called Garden District. The other play, Suddenly Last Summer, achieved far greater prominence over time. In that way, Something Unspoken (particularly with Schmidt’s intriguing interpretation) has the feel of a hidden gem. It’s a tiny treat, an intimate look into a fraught situation with an unexpected modern resonance.

“I think (this interpretation) illuminates the central themes of this play in a way that wasn’t even there to begin with,” says Schmidt. “It makes it really topical and relevant because it really does reflect the examination of race and colonialism and power imbalance within the United States, in particular, and the world in general.”

Tickets for Something Unspoken are $30. The show streams on Vimeo today and tomorrow, and again from May 13-16. Evening show times are 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., with weekend matinees at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. For more details, visit northernlighttheatre.com.

Look for Liane Faulder’s review of Something Unspoken today in the Arts section of edmontonjournal.com.

yegarts@postmedia.com

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