Leaping Lizards

Tennessee Williams was a master at portraying heat. In A Streetcar Named Desire, the sticky warmth of New Orleans heightens the characters’ mania. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie, clad in a negligee, teases the fire between her Brick. Williams knew how to raise temperatures.

   But none of his plays are as palpably hot as The Night of the Iguana, onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through November 13.

   Set along Mexico’s west coast in 1940, this Tony Award­–nominated play follows the residents and visitors of the Costa Verde Hotel. It’s September and it’s hot. Too hot for shirts, but not for rum-cocos.

Katie Cunningham and Tim Altmeyer in The Night of the Iguana.
Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   This true ensemble drama primarily revolves around hotel owner Maxine Faulk—purveyor of the rum-cocos—and returning guest, former reverend, and current tour guide Lawrence Shannon, as well as newcomers Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather, Jonathan Coffin or Nonno. As with many works by Williams, the conflict surrounds the gradual unraveling of the characters’ facades. Connections are made and broken based on what these people reveal to one another, on how vulnerable they become. Throughout it all, there are screaming matches, broken-down buses, hysterical coeds, accusations of sexual misconduct, questionings of faith, and an iguana tied up under the deck. Not to mention the heat. My God, the heat.

   Under the guidance of director William Hayes, Palm Beach Dramaworks puts a sweaty and scintillating spin on The Night of the Iguana, complete with Carbonell Award–worthy performances and stunning production design.

   Let’s start with the technical elements, because the scenery, costumes, sound, and lighting are firstly responsible for setting the mood, for establishing the heat. The scenic design by Michael Amico is impeccable. The palm fronds shake in the wind. The hammock, worn through years of use, looks simultaneously inviting and repulsive. The shoebox-sized rooms are literally big enough for a bed, and that bed isn’t new either. It’s all spot on.

Kim Cozort Kay, Tim Altmeyer, Katie Cunningham, and Dennis Creaghan in The Night of the Iguana. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   It doesn’t stop with the set. The lighting by Paul Black conveys the stifling temperatures and propels time by transitioning from morning to night, a key element as the play spans only one day. Matt Corey layers the sounds of the subtropics, recreates a rainstorm, and juggles an array of offstage voices, from overheated tourists to jovial Germans. And while the costumes by Brian O’Keefe are subtle—even sometimes nonexistent—they at once evoke the era and encapsulate the characters, as with Hannah’s reserved attire and Maxine’s effortlessly sexy denim look.

   If Maxine (Kim Cozart Kay) had her way, she’d just as well be naked. “I never dress in September,” she remarks after Shannon’s arrival. Like the hotel itself, Maxine is a constant presence in The Night of the Iguana. Cozart Kay brings the southern sass crucial to the success of any Maxine portrayal. She slithers across the stage with intent, making friends with some and enemies of others.

   She finds a worthy sparring partner in Rev. Lawrence Shannon, amazingly portrayed by Tim Altmeyer. Shannon isn’t necessarily the most complicated character, but he is the most raw. Much like Nonno, Shannon is “too old to baptize, but too young to bury,” and he balances a level of apathy and longing for the religious life he left behind. Altmeyer taps into Shannon’s past experiences, allowing them to bubble at the surface and often boil over when his ill health, regrets, and temper get the best of him. His slurred speech paired with a southern accent make his lines a little hard to catch at times, but his diction reinforces the character and also forces the audience to hang on his every word.

   The fairly odd couple in this whole equation is artist Hannah Jelkes (Katie Cunningham) and her traveling partner and grandfather Nonno (Dennis Creaghan). Last seen at Dramaworks in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Creaghan portrays the “world’s oldest practicing poet” with such sincerity that you almost feel compelled to get up on the stage and help him walk down the hotel steps yourself. Cunningham has more bite. Her world revolves around her grandfather, and she is willing to cheat and fight to take care of him. This loyalty is actually a detriment to Hannah as it stifles her growth as an individual. But it is character gold for Cunningham, who gets to explore the inner battle that occurs when one must balance a loved one’s interests with personal wellbeing.

   All of these actors know how to bring the heat, both literally and metaphorically. They electrify the conflicts between one another, but they also show the wear and tear of suffering through a 90-degree day with 100-percent humidity. As Floridians, we know how that feels and we understand what that kind of weather can do to one’s psyche. But this heat is an asset, and The Night of the Iguana at Palm Beach Dramaworks is one hot ticket.

If you go: The Night of the Iguana, Palm Beach Dramaworks, West Palm Beach, to November 13.


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