The Caged Bird Sings: Aurora Theatre’s “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale”

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) encounters John (Thomas Gorrebeeck) at a Fourth of July celebration. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Tennessee William’s 1961 reworking of his earlier Summer and Smoke, is one of his masterpieces, residing just beneath A Streetcar Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana in achievement.  It is also, unfortunately, one of his lesser-known and less-produced plays.  The schematic and much inferior Summer and Smoke is mounted far more often, and productions of The Glass Menagerie, a play that hints at greatness but falls well short, seem to pop up every other month, as inevitable and tenacious as crabgrass.  (Next in line to break the horn off that damn unicorn: Marin Theater Company, Fall 2011.)

My first experience with Eccentricities, reading it in college, left me unimpressed.  I read it immediately after Summer and Smoke, and the earlier play’s heavy-handedness bled into my experience of the later.  It wasn’t until many years later, when I saw the terrific television production with Blythe Danner and Frank Langella that I realized its greatness.

I thus eagerly awaited the Aurora Theatre’s production, directed by the skilled and talented Tom Ross.  And when I heard that the wonderful Beth Wilmurt would play Alma Winemiller, the “Nightingale of the Delta,” my hopes were raised almost impossibly high.  (This blog is in real danger of becoming a Wilmurt fan site.)  So it’s with real enthusiasm I can report that the Aurora’s production is wonderful: delicate, poetic, immensely moving, and gorgeously acted and directed.

The character of Alma Winemiller is the heart and soul of the play.  (“Alma means soul in Spanish,” she tells a stranger.)  A singing teacher in the small provincial town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, Alma possesses such depths of feeling and emotion that she can’t help but manifest them physically: she talks too much, she talks too loud, her hands flutter about, she’s awkward and needy. She’s desperate for connection, for beauty, and for meaning.  In love with the handsome boy next door, a recent medical school graduate from Johns Hopkins, she does her best to hide her desire, but she fools no one, especially the boy’s mother, whose own sense of suffocation in this small town causes her to live too much through her son.

The play is set just before World War I, and one of the shocking things is the utter lack of nostalgia in Williams’ vision.  We’re not used to seeing people in turn-of-the-century finery dealing with the messiness and reality of sex.  (In most novels of the period, people get married and babies magically come.)  Alma’s tragedy is also in some sad, small, scandalous way her triumph as well.  In giving up her dreams of love, she, the daughter of a pious minister and a mentally disturbed mother, doesn’t also give up on sex.  She gets her moments of connection where she can. Trapped in her claustrophobic community, with its populace mostly concerned with convention, she makes her way as best she can and Williams’ not only refuses to condemn her for it, he loves her for her bravery.

Alma (Beth Wilmurt) seeks treatment for her palpitations from John (Thomas Gorrebeeck). (Photo: David Allen)

Wilmurt is spectacular.  (Is she the best actress around?  It sure seems that way to me.)  At the play’s opening, she took me aback somewhat. Alma sings at a Fourth of July function, and Wilmurt has a gorgeous voice, but this time there was a strain I haven’t heard before.  It wasn’t until a later scene, when she performs at home for that boy next door, Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck) (“Sacred or profane?” she asks, referring to the type of song he’d like to hear.  “Profane,” he answers), and her voice is relaxed and clear, that I realized just how carefully Wilmurt had calibrated that opening performance, how the strain was the character’s, not the actor’s.

What makes her performance so amazing is the restraint with which Wilmurt portrays Alma’s awkwardness, self-consciousness and desperation.  She emphasizes Alma’s courage, her ability to go on day after day, when only unhappiness stretches before her.  Wilmurt’s Alma is rarely still, she’s busy planning, arranging, talking, hoping to make things come off well.  But Wilmurt is so inside the skin of this character, that she gives every gesture, every motion of Alma’s meaning and purpose.  When her hands flutter, they don’t flop around without direction—they move according to the myriad different, sometimes competing impulses within Alma. Wilmurt projects Alma’s rapid thoughts and emotional changes physically, through movement.  Her scattered motions aren’t awkward to the audience, though we understand how they are to the other characters; Wilmurt uses her body to make Alma’s soul tangible to us.

Of the many heartbreaking yet lovely scenes is a gathering of fellow arts lovers to which she invites John.  Before he comes, she tries to tamp down the groups’ peculiarities, and you can tell she’s seeing the group through John’s eyes.  But rather than cancelling the whole thing then and there, she tries to make it as presentable as possible, delaying any discussion of the group’s manifesto in front of John, as well as avoiding a reading of one member’s epic-length verse play.  When the arts group’s members get too rambunctious, Alma calms them down by reading William Blake’s “Love’s Secret.”  Wilmurt recites it with a beautiful simplicity, and you can see why Alma interests John.

Earlier, Reverend Winemiller, Alma’s minister father, (the unbelievably good Charles Dean), in trying to help his unhappy daughter, tells her how the townspeople mock her and imitate her mannerisms, and it’s awful, awful, awful.  Wilmurt has Alma’s very skin seem to beg him to stop.  Pacing about, wringing her hands, Alma suffers physical pain facing the things about herself that she hates more deeply than any townsperson ever could.  Within herself, Alma already knows how her neighbors feel about her, and forcing her to acknowledge openly their behind-her-back mockery seems intolerably cruel, yet Dean makes it clear that Winemiller doesn’t know how else to help his daughter.  Wilmurt makes it clear that Alma can do nothing with this knowledge except suffer.

The Reverend Winemiller (Charles Dean) shares hard truths with his daughter. (Photo: David Allen)

To the smaller, and in some ways more difficult role of Mrs. Buchanan, John’s mother, Marcia Pizzo brings an astonishing depth and skill.  Mrs. Buchanan is a harridan, so fearful that John may fall into Alma’s grasp that she goes to often ludicrous lengths to keep her son away from Alma. But as Pizzo acts the role, Mrs. Buchanan recognizes too much of Alma in herself: Despite her seeming success (the town beauty, married to the town doctor, respected by all), she’s a woman as unhappy in her own way as Alma is.  She knows how dangerously close she might have come to Alma’s mannered eccentricities.  She’s achieved everything she was taught to want, and it’s not enough.  Her hopes and desires now reside in her son and she clutches him protectively; she believes he won’t be happy or successful if he stays in Glorious Hill, because she did and she isn’t.  He has to leave to achieve the dreams she has for him, and she knows he never will if he attaches himself to Alma.  Pizzo makes the woman more than a harridan: she makes her human.

As John, Gorrebeeck gives an extremely intelligent performance.  He lends the role a stillness and a watchfulness, and John becomes a shock-absorber for these two very different women nevertheless tied by common fears. He’s probably the only person who’s ever really listened to Alma, who’s ever really heard her.  He’s also no fool: He seems to tolerate his mother’s ministrations, but his attention to Alma is an act of rebellion towards his mother.  Unlike her, he knows that Alma is no danger to him.  He’s intrigued, but it’s an almost clinical interest, and he knows that he doesn’t love her.  (Alma, no fool herself, knows it too.)  In Center Rep’s mostly dreadful production of Dracula, Gorrebeeck appeared movie-star handsome, but here, he sports a mustache that somehow makes him more stolid and ordinary, good-looking but in a small-town way, and it’s absolutely right for the role.

Tom Ross handles his actors and the script beautifully—he understands its exquisite structures and moods.  The extreme thrust stage of the Aurora does provide an exciting intimacy with the actors and the play, but it presents some challenges Ross is unable to overcome. Wilmurt is in every scene of this play, and because the play’s done essentially in the round, of necessity there are times when Wilmurt has to have her back to some portion of the audience.  And since what you want to see most at any given moment is her face, you sometimes find yourself craning in your seat, hoping to get a better view of her features.

The design (lighting by Jim Cave; set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro) while on the whole lovely, does have an occasional problem: A gas lamp snaps on like an electric lamp, and there are difficulties suggesting fireplaces with the lighting in the first act scenes.  The fireplace screens are directly in front of the audience and the lighting meant to suggest flames doesn’t quite come across. In the penultimate scene, however, the fire flames, dies, and comes back to life suggestively and beautifully.

In the play’s heartbreaking final sequence, Alma asks a travelling salesman if he speaks Spanish.  “Un poquito,” he replies.  “Sometimes,” she responds, “un poquito is enough.”  For Alma, it has to be enough: It’s all she has, all she’s left with.  With this beautiful, tender and moving production, we’re left with much more than enough, a glimpse into the beauty that illuminates a small, seemingly wretched and insignificant life. And that’s everything.

Mrs. Buchanan (Marcia Pizzo) "rescues" her son from Alma. (Photo: David Allen)

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale plays through May 8, 2011, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA, 94704.  For tickets and other information, call 510-843-4822 or go to


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