Tennessee Williams’ best work this is not (there’s some labored, overly metaphorical writing), but a rare production of “The Eccentricities of a Nightingale” is nevertheless well worth seeing — especially for artistic director Tom Ross’ lively, sensitive production at Aurora Theatre Co.
And most especially for Beth Wilmurt’s luminous, vulnerable portrayal of Williams’ complex heroine, Alma Winemiller.
Alma Winemiller also is the name of the central figure in Williams’ better-known 1947 play “Summer and Smoke”; “Nightingale” is a reworking of that. Although, according to some accounts, he started writing “Nightingale” not long after writing “Summer,” it wasn’t produced on Broadway until 1976.
The relationship between the lonely, nervous songbird Alma and her next-door neighbor, Dr. John Buchanan, is at the center of both plays, and some other characters and plot elements from “Summer” reappear here.
Williams famously declared Alma to be, of all his characters, the one he most identified with. In “Nightingale,” we follow her personal journey in Glorious Hill, Miss., in 1910, as she gradually comes to terms with who she is — hopelessly eccentric, passionate, a misfit, but with surprising inner fortitude.
Wilmurt wins us over immediately, in the opening scene, singing beautifully on the bandstand during the town’s Fourth of July celebration, and her accompanying gestures — so embarrassing to her father and the townsfolk — are awkwardly dramatic.
We agonize for her as the drama jumps from Independence Day to Christmas to New Year’s. Each holiday is marked by a visit home from John (a disappointingly wooden Thomas Gorrebeeck), who’s under the thumb of his ambitious, domineering mother (Marcia Pizzo, a wonderfully manipulative and seductive gorgon).
We know from the beginning that John will ultimately reject the “songbird of the Delta,” as Alma is called — in all his plays, Williams writes about romantic rejection in the most poignant and lyrical ways.
Other characters include the addled mother (an amusingly spunky and disoriented Amy Crumpacker) that Alma could one day turn into, and her preacher father (Charles Dean).
A literary-meeting scene is a reminder of Williams’ great comedic skills. It’s absolutely hilarious, especially in detailed characterizations by Ryan Tasker, Leanne Borghesi, Beth Deitchman and a foppish Dean as a group of small-town culture vultures.
Too many scene changes and too much furniture make things a bit choppy, but otherwise Ross’ production — with gorgeous period costumes by Laura Hazlett — is deeply moving.
The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
Presented by the Aurora Theatre Co.
Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes May 8
Tickets: $10 to $45
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org