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Release: Jan. 5, 2001

Tennessee Williams' 'Spring Storm,' written at the UI, finally has its Iowa premiere

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University Theatres Gallery Series will present the Iowa premiere of "Spring Storm," which Tennessee Williams wrote at the University of Iowa when he was a theater student in the late 1930s, at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 18-20, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, in Theatre B of the UI Theatre Building.

Twenty-six-year-old Tom Williams enrolled at the UI in 1937 a few credits short of graduation, attracted by the school’s growing reputation in the creative arts, and particularly the progressive reputation and new facility of the theater department. He wrote "Spring Storm" for a playwriting seminar taught by E.C. Mabie, the legendary "Boss" of the department.

Set in small-town Mississippi, the play traces the sexual/romantic struggles of four characters against the backdrop of turbulent weather, rising waters and town gossip. A southern belle, Heavenly Critchfield, must choose between her working-class lover, Dick, and the sensitive, bookish Arthur, the rich boy preferred by her social-climbing mother. Meanwhile, the town’s repressed librarian, Hertha, nurtures a secret passion for Arthur. These over-the-top characters and their interactions foreshadow the themes and characters that later made the mature Williams famous.

Director Willie Barbour, a student in the UI department of theatre arts, says, "From these engaging characters would eventually emerge, among others, the well-loved personalities of Tom and Amanda in ‘Glass Menagerie’; the play also showcases the creative structure which Williams would perfect over the following years as his own signature style."

Apparently Williams struggled to finish the script, even writing several different endings, and when plans for a production back home in St. Louis fell through, he abandoned it and went on to other projects, notably "Not About Nightingales," which he wrote for another UI class. That play has also been exhumed and produced in recent years.

Williams was shy and attracted little attention at the UI, acting in a few small roles despite the impediment of his thick southern accent, working on technical crews and making spending money as a busboy in the cafeteria at University Hospital.

He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the UI in 1938, and, according to local legends, he picked up the nickname "Tennessee" during his year in Iowa City from classmates who couldn’t remember which southern state he was from, but he left without ever winning the respect of the rigorously proper Mabie.

According to one anecdote, Mabie responded to the classroom reading of "Spring Storm" with glassy-eyed silence before dismissing the class with the comment, "Well, we all have to paint our nudes."

In his memoirs, Williams stated that Mabie was prejudiced against him, and stories that have circulated about their relationship suggest that the conservative chairman’s estimation of Williams was at least partly the result of homophobia. UI alumnus Lowell Matson, a widely published theater scholar, wrote in a letter, "Beginning immediately after Williams’ graduation in 1938, and for the 18 years or so thereafter that I knew The Boss, he never had anything better to say about ‘that pansy’ than Mr. Williams had to say about him."

Although Williams was winning Pulitzer Prizes and other major awards, Mabie steadfastly refused to produce the plays of his most famous and honored student. When Iowa Summer Rep devoted the 1984 season to Williams’ plays, it was considered ironic that the plays were performed in the theater named for Mabie.

The "lost" script of "Spring Storm" was discovered in 1996 by journalist and dramaturg Don Isaac in Williams’ papers at the University of Texas. Isaac staged a reading in New York, and the Actors Rep of Texas at the University of Texas produced the world premiere in 1999, closely followed by a larger-scale production at the Marin Theatre Company in California.

And now, after more than 60 years, the first play Williams wrote as a UI student is coming home in an all-student production.

UI students are well acquainted with producing new and sometimes unfinished scripts by young playwrights learning the skills and tricks of the trade, and "Spring Storm" exemplifies both the problems and the promise of student scripts.

Critic Richard Connema wrote of the Marin production, "In ‘Spring Storm’ Mr. Williams was testing out a lot of things. His take on small southern towns, his intuitive grasp of his characters and the faint introduction of the characters Williams eventually used to make theater history. . . . Unfortunately Tennessee Williams tried to cram more characters, plot and social milieu into his drama than it can hold. . . . However, there are some sharp, comic quips and intensely poetic passages in the play."

Michael King wrote in "The Texas Observer," "Nothing gets a theatergoer’s blood rushing like a new play by Tennessee Williams. That Poor Tom has been dead for more than 15 years hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm. . . . ‘Spring Storm’ is over-long, grandiose, and often melodramatic when not downright silly. But is has undeniable moments of the true Williams fire, and an onrushing, romantic intensity that maintains excitement until the explosive final moments. . . ."

Other students contributing to the "Spring Storm" production are dramaturg Nancy Mayfield, sound designer Kirsten Johnson, costume designer Cathy Parrott, lighting designer Scott Hosford, and set designer Luke Olsen.

Admission to "Spring Storm" will be $5 ($3 for UI students, senior citizens and youth) at the door.

For UI arts information, visit this new address -- www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa -- on the World Wide Web. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, contact <deborah-thumma@uiowa.edu>. A good source of information about Williams is <http://www.geocities.com/Baja/9315/tennessee.html>.