On the face of it, not much actually happens on stage in 27 Wagons, a lesser-known one-act play written in 1948 by Tennessee Williams. Flora and husband Jake are having a little disagreement about where he was earlier this afternoon. He twists her arm – literally – to make her say that he was with her, should anyone ask. It’s no spoiler to say that when their neighbour (cotton-farmer Silva) turns up, it’s clear that Jake set fire to his farm and Silva knows it; left alone with Flora, Silva takes his revenge on her.
Typical of Williams’ plays, the story is a vehicle for complex characters to reveal themselves slowly through their dialogue. This production relies too much on that dialogue, though. With little more than a garden swing seat on set, and minimal activity going on, the pressure is very much on the actors to generate the world of the play through their delivery, and in this they aren’t entirely successful. As an audience member said to me afterwards, it isn’t a radio play. Considering the theme of domestic violence, I expected to feel more tension – especially in a small venue and sitting close up to the stage.
Helen Fox is quite stunning as she achieves a convincing Flora, falling victim to both of the men and transitioning easily from flirt to victim to hunted. Her deep South accent is off pat, and she communicates her character’s abuse with an admirable balance of dignity and tragedy; it provoked a post-play discussion of her situation, which has universal relevance. Jake is well portrayed as a multi-dimensional character, and is similarly believable as he skilfully charms Flora, winning her over even after he’s just assaulted her.
Silva, however, does not ring so true. The actor is a bit gentle for the character, doesn’t have the grit I expected. Some passion is lacking – or at least not translating into his performance – and while his attack of Flora occurs offstage, the character he creates just doesn’t set us up to believe that he did all that to her. The appearance of Flora’s injuries, on the other hand, is totally credible; the make-up artist deserves credit here.
It’s easier to draw a crowd to a Williams play than it is to pull one off. Overall, Fox and Hound Theatre Company offers a relatively good stab at this one, despite a handful of flaws.