Desire and Disappointment in APT's "A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur"
The title of Tennessee Williams’s A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur refers to a wish for a delightful afternoon outing that doesn’t quite come true. On stage at American Players Theatre in the indoor Touchstone space through Sept. 26, it is the story of four single women in mid-1930s St. Louis who are desperate to change their circumstances. Led by Colleen Madden as Bodey, a resolute, chatty, practical woman of German descent; and Christina Panfilio as Dottie, a delicate-tempered high school teacher who exercises obsessively and overspends on extravagant clothes to make herself more attractive to men, the play is a gorgeous meditation on desire, disappointment and the value of authentic relationships.
The day begins with Bodey at the tiny kitchen stove frying chicken for a lakeside picnic she’s planned for three — herself, her slightly awkward and rough-hewn twin brother, and her roommate Dottie, who is lately driven to distraction by her school’s handsome, young principal. Not only are the two women bickering about whether they will both attend the outing, Bodey refuses to believe that her roomie will not take a romantic interest in her bachelor brother. Meanwhile, Dottie grows more agitated with every set of sit-ups, bends and stretches she performs, waiting for a call from her preferred suitor.
In a chartreuse and cherry print apron, with stockings puddling around her ankles, Madden clashes with every color on the rose wallpapered, knick-knack covered set. Her (padding-assisted) robust figure and wisps of gray hair blending in with mousy brown curls present a great contrast to Panfilio’s willowy Dottie, in a matching striped pajama set, a fashionable turquoise scarf wrapped around her bright blonde coiffure. (Spot-on costume design by Devon Painter.)
When the pearls-clutching, impeccable Helena (Tracy Michelle Arnold) arrives, she inserts herself into this already fraught morning, hoping to discuss money matters with the lovesick Dottie. A WASPy art history teacher who does little to conceal her disdain for Bodey’s excessively floral décor and fresh-off-the-boat attitudes, she wants desperately for Dottie to move with her into a much more desirable, more expensive apartment in a better part of town.
The final addition to the cacophony is Sophie (Carolyn Ann Hordemann), a distraught upstairs neighbor whose mother has died. In the throes of despair, the recent immigrant’s mostly German sentences are uttered through hysterics in fits and starts, horrifying Helena, who views Sophie’s disheveled appearance and raw grief with the same contempt as the overly decorated apartment — she physically recoils from it, as an assault of bad manners and poor taste.
Illustrated deftly by Michael Ganio’s scenic design, these four women are trapped in a too-small space, surrounded by literal and figurative brick walls on all sides. Soaring above the cramped apartment is a wall featuring an ad for lipstick that drives home the point that in this era, women are expected to be romantically available and alluring, for the delight of men. They may be educated and independent enough to hold a job, but only until they have been “promoted” to the position of wife. Those outside of these societal norms — unmarried women over 40 — are ostracized like spinster aunts, with little hope of love, children or financial security in their futures. They are also isolated, and in the pit of their stomachs, these characters fear being left alone more than anything else.
In a monologue bathed in rose light that will remind Williams fans of The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda Wingfield, Panfilio is luminous as Dottie fondly remembering her first love — a gifted pianist who “prematurely” bestowed his affections, then abruptly left her to pursue music. But unlike Amanda, who pinned all her hopes on an imaginary suitor, Dottie is counting on love that was expressed late one night — albeit on the reclining seats of her beau’s new car. Now, existing on Coke and coffee between bouts of aerobics, Dottie has made herself weak to the point of needing rescue, but is ultimately surprised when she recognizes which person loves her most.
While Dottie hyperventilates, Madden’s Bodey is a study in resilience and strength as she squares off against anyone who would upset her roommate. Her ferocity is matched only by her compassion and determination to make the best of things — for herself, her brother, her neighbor and her friend. She growls and spits at Arnold’s Helena like a protective mother, then turns on an emotional dime, gently promising to soothe Sophie with lullabies in German. Even her haphazard interior design is clearly an effort to make the dull, drab apartment more cheerful. Madden’s performance embodies so many expressions of love, it is impossible not to hope that the picnic will happen as planned — even knowing that the park’s name, translated into English, means “bitter disappointment.”
Director Robynn Rodriguez does a masterful job of keeping the play funny, while not making any of the characters ridiculous. All of the women’s predicaments are poignant, yet no one wallows long in their own misfortunes. Rodriguez’ direction also brings issues of class and nativism into stark relief. For every sad note in the production, there is also a show of strength that feels vital.