Sometimes, there’s no other choice but to climb onto the roof with the chickens until the blood goes down. In Tennessee Williams’ “Kingdom of Earth,” misfits trapped in a chaotic landscape must do exactly that.
To the strains of blues and the rumbling of thunder, the show opens with the return of the aristocratic Lot (Joey Collins) to his dilapidated Mississippi farmhouse, which is endangered by an imminent catastrophic flood. Lot’s arrival with Myrtle (Cindy Katz DRA ’90), his wife of just 24 hours, reignites a longstanding inheritance dispute with his half-brother, Chicken (Jack Gwaltney).
At first, Lot seems to be the ultimate achievement of the legendary southern habit of inbreeding: an emaciated but elegant gentleman who constantly fiddles with a cigarette holder. But as the situation develops, Lot emerges as a venal, manipulative bigot with fatal tuberculosis and an creepy obsession with his dead mother, and her wardrobe. Collins’ already thin frame seems to shrink to nothingness as his whiny fretting grows into sinister demands.
Myrtle, his new wife, is a former member of the “Five Hotshots from Memphis” floor show, though she maintains that she has only ever sold her “personality” to the public. Despite her phony insistence that motherhood strikes “the deepest chord within her” and her psychotic fear of drowning, she’s the outpost of sanity in this apocalyptic moment. Katz perfectly captured Myrtle’s peroxide-and-sequins splendor and her desperate attempts to save herself and her fragile self-respect.
The marriage of the two newlyweds is at first inexplicable; Lot’s quest for “elegance in a part of the world not conducive to it” does not jive with Myrtle’s hackneyed romantic overtures.
“I could kiss you forever,” Myrtle coos, and her husband’s dyspeptic reply is inevitable.
“I wouldn’t be able to breathe,” he responds.
But Lot’s motives soon emerge. His hatred for his biracial half-brother has made him seek out Myrtle, which will derail Chicken’s plans to take over the farm after his death. Caring only for Chicken’s misery, Lot bribes Myrtle with the American dream: the title to a farm and newfound social standing.
“Here’s your chance to own something — to own a place of your own and be a lady,” Lot promises.
With his embittered practicality, staccato speeches about his life on the farm, and a Marlboro Man machismo, Chicken is the show’s best candidate for a heart of gold, which Williams duly delivers in the second act. He eventually reveals to Myrtle that his mother’s allegedly “mixed blood” have made him both the town pariah and all the more determined to retain the farm.
Director Mark Rucker’s “Kingdom of Earth” is almost miraculous in its ability to sustain farce in the face of the deep desolation of its characters, their dilemma, and even the set and lighting. Rocking chairs in the moonlight, abortion, vicious murders — all coexist with near-slapstick humor. At the same time, the show is a serious exploration of American (particularly southern) life in the mid-20th century, when racial purity fascinated a dispossessed rural population.
With energy and timing, the actors deliver the one-liners with a skill that seems increasingly brutal. The eeriness of the atmosphere mounts as the floodwaters approach, and each of the three faces a stark decision. As the show drifts further into the twilight zone, and social commentary gives way to surrealism, Gwaltney’s, Collins’ and Katz’ performances gave “Kingdom of Earth” poignancy rather than mere shock value.
Kingdom of Earth
Yale Repertory Theatre
October 25 – December 1