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The Betrayal of Despair 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & e stands behind her, above her, caressing her throat and tempted to crush it. The womanizer and the virgin -- trapped for one night in a seedy Mexican resort, strangers longing for simple human connection and some spiritual answers. From the edge of the jungle sounds the cynical laugh of a woman threatened by her younger, prettier rival.

What people do when they're trapped reveals character. Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana creates a dark night of self-examination for three souls -- earthy widow, generous artist, self-castigating minister -- who are desperate to overcome their loneliness and lack of money, their cynicism and spiritual emptiness. And in the unlikely environs of the Costa Verde Hotel, director Marianne McLaughlin's solid though sometimes uneven production at Spokane Civic Theatre (through March 8) illuminates most of Williams' emotional high points.

Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon is a spiritual seeker who sometimes finds his answers in the arms of underage girls. Ric Benson expresses Shannon's exasperation and wheedling without catching his self-disgust. With suspenders dangling and a plaintive tone, Benson projects the sleaze of the used car salesman or televangelist, but not the corrupted fleshiness of the man who escapes with booze and young girls. Benson's cries of anguish and "Great Caesar's ghost!" were ineffectual, but his later, angrier outbursts were more convincing: flinging his clerical collar into the bushes, re-enacting the contempt he felt for his well-fed parishioners driving around in their "shiny black cockroach sedans."

From an early age, we're told, Shannon has associated sexual pleasure with punishment. That explains the torment and histrionics. With biceps tensed beside his clerical collar and false black shirtfront -- and with his face frequently turned, full of questions, up into the light -- Benson sometimes embodies the spiritual/sexual divide in Shannon's soul. But while Williams's overwritten second act saddles him with explaining what the iguana symbolizes, Benson still needs to find room for more of Shannon's self-contempt.

In a promising Civic debut, Manuela Peters presents a Hannah Jelkes who's less ethereal, less spinsterish than the norm. There's a kind of moral earnestness and idealism in Peters' dignified line delivery that anchors this production's stance against despair. It's the evening's best characterization. Often Peters is helped by McLaughlin's direction (a parallel appearance with Shannon, for example -- Hannah in her artist's frock, the reverend re-frocking himself, both of them girding themselves against their fears).

As she listens to her grandfather recite poetry or to Shannon's complaints against God, pain plays across Peters' face. Hannah spends much time caring for others; without being fussy about it, Peters uses stage business to make her character seem filled with empathy. Breathing deeply to calm herself, clutching a beautiful but flimsy robe around her, Peters stands up to Benson's seductions of mind and body, charting her own course in a world that doesn't much care for sketch artists or for her frail grandfather, "a minor-league poet with a major-league spirit." Hannah needs to stand up among the epicures as a pillar of rectitude and self-reliance; Peters has the simple dignity to do just that.

As Maxine the horny widow, Melody Deatherage is surprisingly sensual and earthy. She unbuttons her blouse, paws Shannon's chest and -- at first sight of others' misfortunes -- throws her head back and cackles. Released from a loveless marriage, she's betting that cuddles and rum cocoas will help stave off the gulf in her soul. But Deatherage leaves Shannon's rejections -- push-backs and insults, like a warning that she can't afford to be a "sexual snob" anymore -- awkwardly underplayed.

Judi Pratt, meanwhile, has a nice comic turn full of throaty hauteur as the leader of the puritanical pack stuffed into Shannon's tour bus and none too happy about it.

The opening guitar-violin-crickets-harmonica sequence is only the first instance of crisp offstage sounds credited to Bryan D. Durbin and Steve Fisher (along with Becky Moonitz as music consultant). Set designer Peter Hardie has scattered cane chairs across the verandah of a shabby hotel. Jungle sounds emanate from just past the walkway there, and rivulets of water drip from the tin roof's grooves during an act-ending (and, since this is Williams) symbolic downpour.

Playing Hannah's grandfather, Chris Carbis' elderly poet chimes in like a chorus, emphasizing how we should strive against the "betrayal of despair," about how so much of life involves "bargaining with mold and mist." In the second-act debate between Hannah and Shannon -- and in the final image of a character thrown back on slender resources -- McLaughlin's Iguana production depicts our struggles with despondency. Its debates will continue long after the jungle sounds have faded away.

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