One of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known plays, Kingdom of Earth is a powerful indictment of racism, classism, and a whole bunch of other -isms, while maintaining the playwright’s keen ability to stay just this side of caricature in his characters. And you can see it right now at the Provincetown Theater, thanks to South Africa’s Abrahamse-Meyer Productions, who brought it here last year as part of the Tennessee Williams Festival and are presenting it again in a longer run this year.
So: the story. As reviewed by Lawrence Bommer,
Though the playwright put parts of himself in all his great characters (most notably Blanche DuBois, Brick Pollitt, and Tom Wingfield), he must have been at his most masochistic when he imagined himself as Lot Ravenstock, a self-described “impotent, one-legged sissy with one foot in the grave.” Lot is dying of TB and desperate to cling to any legacy–if not a child of his own, then the land he grew up on. But death threatens (or promises) to take it away. Haunted by the memory of his dead mother, the only woman he’s loved, Lot naively believes that female devotion will free him of his fears. The woman he hopes will provide that loyalty is Myrtle, a blowsy show girl he married two days before, after meeting her on the set of a TV show: she was being crowned “Queen for a Day.”
He returns with his bride–it’s 1960–to his family’s Mississippi farm just as it’s about to be flooded: heavy symbolism here of the destruction that precedes fecundity and renewal. Lot wants Myrtle to inherit the estate, but the land already has an owner–Chicken, Lot’s half-brother, a brutal loner who’s part black and all fury. Chicken holds a will Lot signed when he was desperate for someone to tend the land after his mother died. Lot wants Myrtle to destroy the agreement so she can take the property (a plot device he’s unashamedly borrowed from A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).
Predictably, Chicken will own not only the home but Myrtle. Weak and helpless, Lot self-destructs in his death chamber upstairs (summoning just enough energy to don his mother’s clothes, Psycho-style) while Myrtle succumbs to the attractions of muscular, loutish Chicken–who also promises to save her from the flood. Finally, in the play’s rhapsodic conclusion, Chicken praises the power of a man’s love for a woman. After making Myrtle promise to breed him a son, he takes her to the roof as the music swells in triumph.
Well, okay. That’s the essence, sure, but Bommer is obviously missing a lot of the nuances of Williams’ play, which certainly cannot be said about the Abrahamse-Meyer Productions’ version that we’re seeing in Provincetown.
Director Fred Abrahamse is very clear about what lies beneath Lot’s obsessions and Chicken’s ultimate triumph: the reason, perhaps, that it took a South African production to help American audiences understand the play is because the two countries have so much in common. “There is a close connection to deep-seated racism,” he explains. “That’s our connection to the play. We’ve all grown up with it.”
Actor Marcel Meyer—who plays Chicken—agrees. “It’s very dark, but the end is positive,” he says. “The flood will purge the land and the old racism—represented by Lot and his mother—has to die so that the new multiracial family can start with Chicken and Myrtle and a new order can come after the flood has purged the land, and I think it’s happened in ’94 in South Africa when Mandela was freed, and how far our countries have come … this is our play, we know these people.” Director Abrahamse nods. “I mean, you go into the middle of South Africa, you could be in Mississippi almost, it’s the same kind of feeling.”
But what about the—um—accents? Actor Nicholas Dallas, who plays Lot, took a straightforward approach: “I watched Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and just practiced being Kevin Spacey!” he laughs.
It is a powerful play being given an extraordinarily powerful production and one of the true highlights of this year’s festival. Make sure you get over to the Provincetown Theater to see it.
Kingdom of Earth continues at the Provincetown Theater throughout the Tennessee Williams Festival; tickets are available online at provincetowntheater.org.