The first short play in this hour-long double-bill, Ivan’s Widow is a graphic exploration of abuse of power – in this case between a counsellor/psychiatrist, and a bereaved widow who simply could not come to terms with her husband's death. Tennessee Williams, the playwright, is self-assured and sophisticated in his portrayal of a woman longing to come home to her husband: drinking and driving to escape the torment of life without him.
This play is a timeless portrayal of bereavement which spirals down into depression, hallucinations and alcoholism. As the psychiatrist and would-be counsellor tries to help plumb the depths of grief personified, all he manages to do is to threaten and ensnare.
Helen Fox is convincing as the widow consumed by grief with an uncertain grasp on reality, and we feel her pain deeply; but the psychiatrist is a more complex character. He is conflicted, predatory, promiscuous, menacing – and yet you sense the man inside who wants to help, but cannot because he is overcome by desire. Do be aware that this early play by Williams is distressing and not for the faint-hearted.
It’s followed by one of his last: Talk to me like the rain and let me listen, which could almost be a second act of the same play. Here, the set is debauched, the man is comatose and far more stereotypical at first, even self-absorbed and wooden. But Helen Fox is mesmerising once more.
It’s raining; she’s sitting by the window, watching the children go to the park and dreaming of a world without sex or people, where she can simply grow old in peace. Her dreams are innocent but vivid. An old chambermaid makes her bed and does her shopping, so that she does not need to be bothered by people or money. She has a single bed and a room of her own, emotional space and freedom from, dare I say it, sexual slavery? She consents to sex with her partner, but only just; graciously understanding his needs, although we infer that he never notices hers – especially when he's been drinking.
The unnamed man wakes, sober, and invites his partner to talk. He means it, but it is far, far too late. Or is it? He could be the predatory psychiatrist, ruined – or another domineering man of his time, discontented, without purpose, and disconnected from the vibrant world outside his flat.
Tennessee Williams achieves a complexity in these plays, presenting inner conflict in settings we can relate to, that proves more powerful than numerous emotive political dramas short of context. I recommend the two shorts but, I repeat, they are not easy to watch. Life can at times be too much for many of us, but the human spirit is resilient, even noble; I yearned to see that truth explored – but that would be a different play.