Period of Adjustment is one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser known plays, and while not a comedy in the traditional sense it is lighter in tone then one would expect from the man who penned Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire.
Not revived in London since the 1960s, the play, at first glance, seems an odd choice for the Almeida, but in the steady hands of director Howard Davies it mainly succeeds. An unusual but often touching study of relationships, Period of Adjustment encompasses many of Tennessee Williams’ favourite themes: loneliness, sexual tension, impotence and the need for human kindness and love, but it does so in an often deceptively light-hearted way.
Newly-weds Isabel and George Haverstick (Lisa Dillon and Benedict Cumberbatch) are visiting George’s old army friend Ralph Bates (Jared Harris) in Nashville on Christmas Eve. Married the day before, it quickly becomes apparent that the wedding night was an unconsummated disaster.
The atmospheric set is almost a character in itself. The Bates house is shown to be falling apart, with uneven floors and huge cracks in the walls – Ralph notes early on that it has been built over a cavern and that it is gradually sinking into the void. Ralph’s wife Dorethea (played by Sandy McDade) has recently left him and this uneven terrain, the cracked interior and the empty space underneath, serve as a rather obvious metaphor for the emotional states of the four individuals. This is one of the play’s key problems; there’s a real lack of subtlety in the writing.
The production is redeemed by the wonderful performances Howard Davies has drawn from his cast. Jared Harris is endearing as the easy going, sweet and apparently in control Ralph, who later shows he has just as poor a grasp on his emotions as his damaged buddy George. Benedict Cumberbatch has perhaps the hardest task; George has the shakes after a spell in Korea and is impotent, frustrated and very angry, yet Cumberbatch still manages to brng out George’s vulnerability even when his character is boasting about his past sexual prowess.
Sandy McDade brings some much needed levity into the second half as Ralph’s apparently frigid wife. But it is Lisa Dillon who steals the show; she is a revelation as Isabel, a sexy Texas Marilyn Monroe blonde with a rod of Puritanism running through her. She is constantly fixing her hair or smoothing her clothes and yet she makes these tics seem endearing and natural rather than irritating. Saddled with a thick Southern accent, she is still capable of delivering the play’s best lines with perfect poise and timing. Furthermore she keeps the audience guessing all the way through as to Isabel’s true nature.
Ralph argues throughout the play that Isabel and George’s marital problems merely require a “period of adjustment”. However, what the play ultimately proves is that all relationships are about the need for constant adjustment.
While this is in no way one of Tennessee Williams’ best plays, the Almedia’s production draws from it a piece of theatre that is frequently as entertaining as it is thought provoking. But it’s the acting that is the main pull here – these are performances worth seeing.