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The director and performer discuss collaborating on Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana
2023 is just wrapping up, but director Emily Mann (Having Our Say) and performer Daphne Rubin-Vega (the original Mimi in Rent) are already thinking about 2033. Their current collaboration, an Off-Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams' rarely revived The Night of the Iguana, marks the third time they're worked together—a partnership that takes place approximately every ten years.
Mann, who served as the artistic director and resident playwright of New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center from 1990 to 2020, first directed Rubin-Vega in the Broadway premiere of Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna and the Tropics in 2003. The two reunited in 2012 for a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Rubin-Vega as Stella alongside Blair Underwood's Stanley.
While they are both Williams fans, his Night of the Iguana was not on either of their wish lists. Rubin-Vega had seen the 1964 film starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr and found the story reductive. Mann's initial reading of the script, which centers on a defrocked clergyman and the women who give him solace, left her unmoved.
Directing a 2020 Zoom reading of the play as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund changed Mann's mind. "It hit me between the eyes," she says. "Maybe it was the pandemic—that sense of aloneness and isolation and understanding that broken bridges between people are broken gates. One salvation is in finding a way to communicate and reach another human being."
Talk of a full production followed, and Mann asked Rubin-Vega to read Williams' original script. "It was nothing like what I expected," Rubin-Vega recalls. "It was so much more layered and audacious." She quickly signed on and now The Night of the Iguana is enjoying its first major New York mounting in more than a quarter century thanks to La Femme Theatre Productions.
A poetic epic about temptation and redemption set in Mexico in 1940, The Night of the Iguana is frequently referred to as Williams' last major play. After being banished from his church for an improper relationship and a blasphemous sermon, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Tim Daly) finds himself in danger of losing his job as a tour guide due to accusations of statutory rape. Seeking refuge at a seaside hotel run by Maxine (Rubin-Vega), the flamboyant widow of a friend, he encounters New England artist Hannah (Jean Lichty) and her grandfather (Austin Pendleton), an elderly poet. With help from these eccentric souls, Shannon finds a sense of deliverance.
Because of Shannon's prior bad acts and victim mentality, Mann realizes it's hard for audiences to be compassionate toward him. One of her biggest challenges in directing the play is making this deeply flawed character palatable. "If you don't feel sympathy for Shannon, you don't want to watch him for three hours," Mann says. "He's often played just as a loathsome creature. I wanted him to be the kind of guy who has incredible charm but is in a deep struggle with himself in terms of who he thinks he is and what he thinks God is. There's a lot of shame and guilt there."
Mann also wants to justify Maxine's affection for Shannon. Pragmatic and straightforward, Maxine speaks bluntly about her sex life with her late husband as well as the "night swims" she takes with two of her young employees. While it's clear she's good for Shannon, her devotion to him is curious.
"I think her obsession with Shannon is fascinating," says Rubin-Vega. "It's this indefinable need for him, and I think that's what Tennessee called desire. It's fire, desire, passion, trying to fill an unquenchable hole."
To gain insight into Maxine and Shannon's relationship, Mann traveled to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin to peek at Williams' papers. "One of the things that he wrote, which he cut from the play but it's in the stage directions, is how much Maxine loves Shannon," Mann says. "Maxine worries about him. So, we didn't do the usual sexy kitten, sex bomb thing. There's real love there."
Mann has a long history of directing Williams' work, starting with a mounting of The Glass Menagerie at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater in 1979. After Williams' brother Dakin told Tennessee it was the best production of the play he had ever seen, a friendship blossomed between the director and playwright. He even asked her to direct his final play, A House Not Meant to Stand. She turned him down, too intimated to work with the legend, a decision she regretted until a confidant told her the experience probably would have landed her "in rehab."
Mann's relationship with Williams continued until he passed away in 1983, and she went on to stage many of his plays, often multiple times. But this is her first crack at The Night of the Iguana. Even though it's been 40 years since he died, she still feels Williams' presence. "It's like he's on my shoulder every time I direct," she says.
There are reasons The Night of the Iguana is infrequently done. As Rubin-Vega says, it has "all the isms: alcoholism, capitalism, racism, sexism," and its antihero would likely be canceled or convicted now. Yet its examination of trauma and healing are timeless. "It's interesting to be doing it today, with the language and the awakened frames of reference that we have," Rubin-Vega says. "It's fascinating to see how Williams talks about what's going on today."
"Everyone's going to some dangerous places emotionally," Mann adds. "We have a great intuitive understanding of each other. We trust each other doing this deep excavation and investigation."
Although Rubin-Vega and Mann aren't sure what their next project will be—or whether it will take ten years to happen—they do know they love working together. "We cross a lot of lines that we might not do with everyone," Mann says. "That just gives us freedom to go deeper and deeper and deeper, which is really quite awesome."
The Night of the Iguana is also occasionally available at our TKTS Booths.