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Philip Dawkins' new play offers a fictionalized take on the playwrights' early encounters
Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, Philip Dawkins started doing theatre while still in elementary school. So it's no surprise that he discovered Tennessee Williams at a formative time in his life. "When I was 12, I was looking for monologues to do, and I was tired of all the usual ones for kids my age," he recalls. "I decided to do one from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that belonged to Maggie, although I changed her name to Matt. Of course I had no idea what I was saying, but I did it anyway!"
That precocious episode sparked Dawkins' interest in Williams' work. Now a 37-year-old playwright based in Chicago, he made his Off-Broadway debut last year with the etiquette school dramedy Charm at MCC Theater. In his latest show, The Gentleman Caller produced by Abingdon Theatre Company, Dawkins delves into Williams' private life by exploring his complex relationship with fellow dramatist William Inge.
The theatrical titans really did meet two times back in 1944, years before they became Pulitzer Prize winners. Inge was working as a drama critic at the St. Louis Star-Times when he interviewed Williams about his new play The Glass Menagerie. Later, Inge admitted Williams was the one who inspired him to make the leap from critic to creator. But it's unclear how well these two men -- now revered as gay icons -- actually knew each other. Were they colleagues? Rivals? Possibly lovers?
Using direct quotes from the pair's writings and journals to flesh out his script, Dawkins imagines what those early career meetings may have been like. "I knew I had to write this," says Dawkins, who originally pitched the play to Chicago's Raven Theatre, where a simultaneous but separate production is running. "The thing that drove me most is that as a queer man in 2018, I know how privileged I am that I can mostly move through the world freely. They had to live in a place where there were, as we say in the play, no safe spaces, except maybe one's work."
Dawkins initially learned about the Williams-Inge connection while living in the latter's family home in Kansas, which hosts visiting artists. But there wasn't much to go on. "Inge was such a private person, there was very little research I could do about those encounters," Dawkins says. "Ultimately, I went back to the Inge Festival one year and was able to interview a lot of people who proved very helpful in creating this play." Of course he boned up on Williams, too. "I read a lot more of Tennessee's work and work about him," he says. "Unlike Inge, Tennessee was an open book, but in his own way I think he hid his soul by sharing so much information with the public."
The most striking aspect of Abingdon Theatre's mounting of The Gentleman Caller is its nontraditional casting: Juan Francisco Villa, an actor of Colombian descent, plays Williams, while Inge is portrayed by Korean-American performer Daniel K. Isaac. Considering Dawkins' gender-blind Cat on a Hit Tin Roof experience in his youth, it makes sense that he crafted a play in which two white male figures could be played by performers of all stripes. "I didn't write for any specific type," Dawkins says. "It could be done by two non-cisgender actors if that worked. I truly don't care if the performers look like their characters; that doesn't mean anything to me. My biggest concern about casting Juan was that he's clearly not the same age as Daniel and, originally, I thought the two actors should be roughly the same age, just as Williams and Inge were."
However, Dawkins soon realized that disparity could work to The Gentleman Caller's advantage. The title is an allusion to a character in Williams' famous memory play The Glass Menagerie, in which a writer looks back on his youth. Dawkins says his show uses a similar lens. "This is Tennessee's own memory play," he explains. "Having an older actor play the character makes the work even sadder when you realize he's reliving what happened between him and Inge from a farther perspective."
But while the play is certainly bittersweet, it also functions as a tribute to these two queer pioneers, who lived in a terribly repressive era. "These men and women who fought hard to make this world, like Williams and Inge, weren't afforded the same privilege as I have," says Dawkins. "I want to honor them."
Top image: Daniel K. Isaac and Juan Francisco Villa in The Gentleman Caller. Photos by Maria Baranova.