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One-act ‘This Property is Condemned’ packs a wallop

Laine Peterson and Nic Adams star in "This Property is Condemned."

Laine Peterson and Nic Adams star in "This Property is Condemned."

The economy wasn’t the only casualty in the Great Depression. Society’s collapsing middle class pushed whole families into moral ruin. We are reminded of this collateral damage forgotten by historians in Tennessee Williams’ famous one-act “This Property Is Condemned.”

The play, running less than 25 minutes with only two characters, is a production of The Now Theatre, presented in the Rogue After Curfew series.

Tom, a 16-year-old boy, is played by Nic Adams (who is also the director). Opposite him is Laine Peterson as Willie, a 13-year-old girl who lives by herself in an empty boarding house.

Their conversation is the play.

Sydney Pollack directed the 1966 film adaptation starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford. The play is nothing like the movie, expanded by 12 screenwriters to be the story of Willie’s wayward, undisciplined older sister who, at 16, actively entertained the many railroad men who stayed at a boarding house run by her mother.

In this vastly expanded (some would say distorted) film adaptation there is scarcely any place for Willie and Tom. Needless to say, Williams hated the screen version. He hated nearly every picture made from any of his plays.

What Williams loved about the one-act play “This Property Is Condemned” is his creation of Willie, a girl who “laughs frequently and wildly and with a sort of precocious, tragic abandon.” On its surface, the play is simple – just two kids sittin’ around talkin’.

For fans of Williams’ work, though, this production is a must-see. Because the two characters are so young, and because the girl has no interest in moral behavior, performances of the piece are rare. Both actors are in their 20s, but do manage to capture a sense of what touched Williams most – a 13-year-old’s bravery facing a world of rough men making cruel demands on her innocence.

These days, we think of those news stories describing sex safaris to third world countries where wealthy Americans enjoy the favors of children barely old enough to be sexually active. We act indignant, insisting such horrible things could never happen here.

Yet Williams lays it out plainly enough. As money slips away from families with no marketable skills in hard financial times, sex becomes a valuable commodity. Although the play is set near an isolated tank town along the railroad tracks in rural Mississippi, it could happen anywhere.

In writing Willie’s casual chatter the playwright slowly reveals Willie’s poignant plight, as if the girl has no idea what the implications are in what she is saying. Peterson lets her body language add the adjectives indicating fear covered by bravado.

Tom, in his own frightened curiosity about sex, learned earlier of Willie’s life and her older sister’s reputation with the railroad men. Tom heard that Willie danced naked once for one of the men.

Willie dances around that subject, too, then nervously admits it. Tom eagerly asks if she would dance for him, but Willie cuts Tom short. She only wants to talk to experienced men with good jobs. Peterson delivers that line with such directness that only later does the shocking impact of its implication begin to sink in.

This is a girl who has grown up watching her older sister dine regularly on forbidden fruit. Then her sister died of pneumonia. We can feel in Peterson’s acting the uncertainty of Willie’s pride, how the girl instinctively knows this forbidden fruit will be the only nutrition she can get.

Photo by Duane Dugas, courtesy of Nic Adams



What: The Now Theatre presents “This Property Is Condemned” by Tennessee Williams

When: 10 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, except the March 29 performance immediately after The Rogue Theatre’s 2 p.m. presentation of “Immortal Longings”

Where: Zuzi’s Theatre, 738 N. Fifth Ave.

Price: $10 general admission, $5 with a ticket to see “Immortal Longings”

Info: 949-547-6067, www.theroguetheatre.org

Grade: A

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