“Who am I … ?” Tennessee Williams asked in a 1968 poem. “A monster among angels, or an angel among monsters.” Williams, who spent his early life in an Episcopal Mississippi rectory, devoted his adulthood to unlearning the repression of the monolithic puritanism in which he’d been marinated. His plays chronicle the brilliance and the barbarity of his deliberate regression. “I’m a peculiar blend of the pragmatist and the Romanticist and the crocodile. The monster,” he told The Miami Herald in the 70s.

But, as early as the mid-50s, when boozing, pills, and promiscuity began to warp his heart and to threaten his art, the word “monster” began filtering into his plays. There were the “no-neck monsters” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); the “monster meets monster” standoff between Chance Wayne and Alexandra de Lago (Sweet Bird of Youth); and the eponymous monster under the hotel veranda in The Night of the Iguana (1961), literally straining at the end of its tether, an emblem of Williams’s own tormented, mutated spirit.

“Don’t ask me why I’ve fallen into this state,” he wrote his agent Audrey Wood, when he was already at work on the play in late 1959, “because I couldn’t tell you except to say that something ‘spooked’ me somewhere, sometime, somehow, and I can’t shake the spook.” He added: “The lucky thing is that I’m writing about just exactly that thing.”

“Something ‘spooked’ me somewhere, sometime.”

In the 30 months it took to complete The Night of the Iguana, which is getting a fine revival on London’s West End at the Noël Coward Theatre, Williams split with his inspired longtime director, Elia Kazan, cut loose his producer Cheryl Crawford, who’d mounted four of his previous plays, and broken up with his partner of 15 years, Frank Merlo. He’d lost his emotional and creative ballast. Having dominated the American theater for nearly two decades, Williams was also keenly aware that the wattage of his creativity was dwindling.

“My brain is going out now, like a failing power,” says the play’s central character, Shannon, the defrocked priest and AWOL tour guide who is the messenger of Williams’s sense of collapse and corruption. In Williams’s mind, he was fighting a battle against Time and his own monstrousness. (“I want my goodness back,” he explained in 1969, when he briefly converted to Catholicism.) “Monster” has its etymological root in the Latin words for warning and blessing; The Night of the Iguana, whose original subtitle was “Three Acts of Grace,” dramatized these battling polarities in Williams’s very split personality—an internal war in which his longing for redemption duked it out with his longing for rot.

Lost Souls at a Mexican Resort

Here, in James Macdonald’s eloquent production, the stage is dominated by Rae Smith’s huge granite escarpment, which towers high up into the flies, dwarfing the palm trees and the creosoted cabins nestled underneath; the gorgeous vertiginous design thrusts the action powerfully forward and emphasizes the fragility of the beleaguered lost souls who congregate at the primitive Mexican resort. Nowadays, theater is dominated by the anecdotal and the minimal, so it’s refreshing and valuable to be submerged in Williams’s unique, uncut poetic universe.

The Night of the Iguana is Williams’s last great work; although he kept writing until his death, in 1983—he had seven more Broadway outings—it was his last Broadway hit. There is a symphonic quality to his language, which is as lush, pungent, and spectacular as the fecund Mexican terrain out of which it emerges. No modern American playwright lives within his characters as deeply as Williams; they emerge fully, if verbosely, imagined. (“For love I make characters,” Williams famously said.)

Pilgrims in a Pagan Mix

Shannon (Clive Owen), on the brink of a crack-up, having bonked the only under-age tourist in “a football squad of old maids” he’s busing around Mexico, is pursued up the mountain by the girl’s unhappy chaperone, who wants his head, and the affable, rapacious proprietor of the rustic hotel, Maxine Faulk (Anna Gunn), who wants his cock. Into this pagan mix Williams throws two spiritual pilgrims: Nonno, at 97, “the oldest living and practicing poet on earth,” trying to finish his last poem, and his ethereal New England granddaughter and caretaker, Hannah Jelkes (Lia Williams), the stoic embodiment of charity and compassion. “She suggests a Gothic Cathedral image of a medieval saint, but animated,” the stage directions read. Hannah is the still water of acceptance in contrast to Shannon’s storm of abdications. “Don’t kid yourself that you ever travel with someone,” she tells Shannon, who boasts of the company of “trainloads, planeloads and boatloads of tourists.” Hannah goes on: “You have always travelled alone except for your spook, as you call it. He’s your travelling companion. Nothing, nobody else has travelled with you.”

In any production, casting is 50 percent of success. Here, Gunn and Owen, both seasoned and attractive performers, give clear, crisp, compelling renderings of their complex parts. That said, each actor plays the notes but never quite finds the music of Williams’s desolation. What’s missing can’t be acted; it’s part of the personal baggage that each actor brings onto the stage. For instance, Maxine is some kind of cornucopia of concupiscence, a bohemian whose loucheness is as extravagant and unruly as the tropical habitat she calls home. As good as Gunn is—a smart, serious, award-winning American actress who found fame as Skyler White in the TV series Breaking Bad—she hasn’t a whiff of the wayward. Even when Shannon asks her to button up her blouse, nothing of her spills out, unboundaried.

Anna Gunn and Clive Owen give clear, crisp, compelling renderings of their complex parts.

Likewise, Owen, who is centered, handsome, and sends it solid, has not a touch of the lunatic. There’s nothing haunted or ghostly in his toned presence. By his own admission, Williams was the definition of a hysteric—“sixteen cylinders inside a jalopy,” he said. So is Shannon, who uses his wound as lure—a fact that the clear-eyed Hannah, whose solitude is expertly conveyed by Lia Williams, points out when he’s breaking down and strapped into a hammock. “A man can die of panic,” Shannon bleats to Hannah, who sees through the hysteric’s strategy to shock and control. “Not if he enjoys it as much as you, Mr. Shannon,” she says. Owen can act the panic, but a sense of doom, the thing that gives Shannon’s flight from life its particular tragic trajectory, is not part of his metabolism.

If Shannon can’t find grace, at least he can engineer it; he cuts free the iguana. But the sense of blessing, the notion of meaningful existence with which the play wrestles, is realized at least by Nonno (Julian Glover), “a minor league poet with a major league spirit,” who suddenly completes his new poem and then just as suddenly dies in some kind of perfect equipoise. Hannah must soldier on under new circumstances with only the memory of love and loyalty to guide her; Shannon is also in motion, but, lacking Hannah’s disciplined soul, his momentum is downward. At the finale, Maxine leads Shannon toward the beach below, a trail which turns out to be the path of least resistance. “I can make it down the hill, but not back up,” he tells her.

As they descend, Maxine, “half leading half supporting him,” sings him the siren song of oblivion. If he stays on with her at the resort, she holds out the prospect of perpetual drink and epic fornications, servicing the wives of her middle-aged male clientele. “That’s what you can do, you know that, Shannon,” she says in her last words. “He chuckles happily,” the stage direction reads. Shannon’s smile plays as both a sign of agreement and capitulation; he has given up on life and on himself. He has lost his struggle to save his soul.

The Writing on the Fourth Wall

And so it proved for Williams. From the mid-60s to the mid-70s, he entered what he called his “Stoned Age,” in which he “elected to be a zombie except for my mornings at work.” Although The Night of the Iguana had a respectable Broadway run, it was the first of his major plays not to get a national tour. Williams saw the writing on the fourth wall. The Broadway audience was changing; so was theatrical storytelling. The New Wave of European and American playwrights brought both an astringency and an allusiveness that challenged Williams’s florid narrative style and his hegemony. “I’m beginning to feel like Louisa May Alcott or the early Fanny Hurst,” Williams wrote to his publisher.

In “The Gnadiges Fraulein” (1966), he made a short, rambunctious foray into the surreal (“My answer to the school of Ionesco,” he said), a scintillating last-ditch flourish of bravura playwriting before he became, by his own and his critics’ admission, a ghost of his former self. The Night of the Iguana is the last, majestic, fully realized expression of the geography of Williams’s interior, his vision of life as “a nothing-withholding self to flame.” Like Shannon, Williams was “a man of God, on vacation.” If he finally never found the light, his outcrying heart certainly cast it.

John Lahr is a columnist for AIR MAIL