The Toronto premiere of Daniel MacIvor's play about an aging Tennessee Williams makes us wonder why a show this good took so long to get here.
The weirdest thing about Daniel MacIvor’s new play His Greatness, currently playing at the Factory Studio Theatre, is that it isn’t a new play. It premiered in Vancouver all the way back in 2007, and the script was published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2008. It seems like an incredibly easy sell: an accessible two-act play about Tennessee Williams written by one of our country’s most celebrated theatre artists. As a bonus, this particular production even features MacIvor himself (a rare appearance in one of his multi-character plays) in the pivotal role of Williams’ personal assistant. What took so long for this show to come to Toronto? And why wasn’t in programmed into a season at any of the theatres in town instead of debuting as a rental produced by the brand-new independent Artists Repertory Company? Whatever the answer to these questions, it was worth the wait. His Greatness is, well, great.
In a way, the timing makes sense. Tennessee Williams was born in 1911, making this the centenary of his birth. And while we think of him now as the celebrated author of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, in his theatre career Williams had at least as many flops as hits, and the last 15 years of his life were not marked with success. In 1980, he premiered a re-worked version of Red Devil Battery Sign—a show that had already flopped in both London and Boston—in Vancouver, to little acclaim. Increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol, Williams’ time in Vancouver is better remembered for his own notorious rehearsal-hall behaviour than for the play he created.
His Greatness takes place over the course of a few days in Williams’ hotel room in Vancouver before and after the opening night of Red Devil Battery Sign. Kind of. MacIvor’s script never actually mentions Williams by name, or Red Devil Battery Sign, even though the poster features a picture of Williams and the play tagline “A potentially true story about two days in the last year of the great American playwright Tennessee Williams.” The word “potentially” should tip you off that this isn’t a slavishly faithful bio-play, and MacIvor plays fast and loose with the facts: Williams actually died in 1983, and produced four plays after Red Devil Battery Sign; the assistant character is surely inspired by Frank Merlo, William’s longtime personal secretary/boyfriend, but Merlo died of cancer in 1963, long before the events of His Greatness. But that’s all a bit academic. This show feels like Tennessee Williams, and it feels true.
Richard Donat, who actually appeared in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red Devil Battery Sign all the way back in 1980, is perfect as an aging, debauched Williams, peppering the tragic, ruined genius role with moments of genuine charm and levity that make his present state all the sadder. Greg Gale gives a surprisingly goofy turn as a young rentboy who falls under the playwright’s spell and doesn’t leave in the morning when he’s supposed to. But the real heart of the show is MacIvor as the nearly fed-up assistant. The relationship between him and Donat’s Williams is palpably real; it’s bitter and mean-spirited in a way that makes you know it was once loving and kind. Ed Roy directs the piece in an even, naturalistic style that makes great use of Kimberly Purtell’s frankly astonishing hotel room set. The highly detailed playing space looks like a million bucks and is absolutely the best (and the biggest!) the Factory Studio has ever looked.
This show’s a real treat for Tennessee Williams fans. But at the end of the day, His Greatness is as much a story about addiction, decaying relationships, and the fickle nature of artistic success as it is about the great American playwright. And so, even if you don’t know Blanche Dubois from Blanche De Chambly, it’s still well worth the trip.