At the world premiere of Tennessee Williams’s A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur forty years ago at the Spoleto Festival, the Missouri-born playwright was still revising lines at the last minute and even made a cast change on opening night. As a rare revival by La Femme Productions at the Theatre of St. Clement’s demonstrates, it still could use more than a little work. Directed by the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton, the play is drab and plain, a mishmash of such previous Williams triumphs as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, from Harry Feiner’s confusing set — a series of rooms without walls, making it difficult to know who can see whom at any given moment — to the plot, which is more of a short story than a fully developed stage show. It’s 1937 in St. Louis, and Bodey (Kristine Nielsen) is preparing for the weekly Sunday picnic in Creve Coeur with her roommate, Dorothea (Jean Lichty), and Bodey’s unseen twin brother, Buddy. Amid her morning calisthenics, Dorothea is interrupted by Helena (Annette O’Toole), a fellow teacher at the Blewett school who is planning on moving into a better apartment on the right side of town with her. Dorothea, however, is obsessed with Ralph Ellis, her principal and principle love interest; she is sure he is going to ask her out again and eventually propose, which infuriates Bodey, who believes that she should marry Buddy, who is not necessarily a primo catch. Also stopping by to add to the mess is their neighbor Miss Gluck (Polly McKie), who is not very mobile or talkative. While Dorothea waits for the phone to ring, expecting her gentleman caller, the women exchange various insults and share some of their dreams, although not playing very nice.
At St. Clement’s, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur — a companion piece to Williams’s 1970 one-act, The Demolition Downtown — is stale and repetitive, wasting the talents of some very fine actresses, particularly the usually flawless Obie-winning, Tony-nominated Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; Eunice Hubbell in the 2005 Broadway revival of Streetcar) and Emmy nominee O’Toole (Man from Nebraska, Hamlet in Bed). Early on, Bodey is embarrassed about wearing a hearing aid, so Dorothea reminds her that she can put a fake flower in her hair to cover it up. However, despite fussing over the placement of the flower, Bodey ends up leaving it where it doesn’t even come close to hiding any part of her ear. It’s an uncomfortable moment that is followed by many more. The piece was originally a one-act, then expanded and performed with an intermission; Pendleton’s version runs one hundred minutes with no break. In a 2007 interview with The Tennessee Williams Annual Review, actress Charlotte Moore discussed the play’s beginnings at the 1978 Spoleto Festival, where she portrayed Helena opposite Shirley Knight’s Dorothea. “Well, we didn’t get any bad reviews, which we deserved. Who knew what we were doing at that point?” she says. Forty years later, who does know what they’re doing with this late Williams play?