Monday, September 19, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Diane D'Aquila's night out with Tennessee Williams

With my interview with Diane D'Aquila in the paper today and Daniel MacIvor's play about Tennesee Williams about to open in Toronto, I was reminded of this interview I did with Diane D'Aquila back in 2005 for the National Post...

STRATFORD, Ont. - "It's a dreadful portrait," admits Diane D'Aquila of the gaudy painting of her that hangs on the wall of her home. "I look like a kind of anorexic Jacqueline Onassis."

But what the oil painting lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in story: The portrait of the Stratford Festival actress was painted by Tennessee Williams during rehearsals for a 1980 production of his play Red Devil Battery Sign at the Vancouver Playhouse.

Lately, D'Aquila has had much occasion to think back on the time Williams spent in Canada near the end of his life. This season, the Stratford Festival is putting on two of Williams's plays: Orpheus Descending and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which D'Aquila is understudying Lally Cadeau as Big Mama.

With his career in the doldrums, Williams -- whose classics include The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire -- accepted an invitation to be Distinguished Artist in Residence at the University of British Columbia and consult at the Vancouver Playhouse, which was then under the artistic direction of Rodger Hodgman. "[The university] was paying him something like $2,000 a week, which in those days was a lot of money," recalls D'Aquila, who is starring in The Donnellys: Sticks & Stones and Measure for Measure at Stratford this year. "And the Playhouse was picking up everything else -- the apartment, the chauffeur, the living expenses."

During his first year in Vancouver 25 years ago, Williams chose to co-direct Red Devil Battery Sign at the Playhouse with D'Aquila starring as the oddly named Woman Downtown.

His most political and least naturalistic play, Red Devil Battery Sign had flopped during Broadway try-outs in Boston in 1975. "When the chance came to go to Vancouver, where no one was going to see it except for people from Vancouver, he rewrote it," recalls D'Aquila, who won a Gemini in 2004 for her portrayal of Elizabeth I in the film Elizabeth Rex. "Massive rewrites."

Though she is unsure why, D'Aquila was one of the few cast members who got to spend any time with the ageing alcoholic playwright outside of rehearsals. Their social acquaintance began one night at about 11, when she received a call from Williams's latest chauffeur -- he switched them when he tired of them -- that her presence was requested. Moments later, Williams and his driver picked her up and they drove to a local gay bar, where D'Aquila was the only woman in the place.

"He drank creme de menthe and he ordered me one, too," recalls D'Aquila, imitating Williams's gentle Mississippi drawl. "I hate creme de menthe. I hate it with a passion. But he liked it and drank it over ice. And he just sat and watched everyone in the bar."

The two exchanged few words during what sounds like an awkward night out -- though at one point Williams urged D'Aquila to call him Tenn. "But I never called him Tenn again back in rehearsal," says D'Aquila. "I felt it was the creme de menthe talking."

Soon after, Williams asked D'Aquila to pose for a portrait, a photo reproduction of which is currently on display in the lobby of the Avon Theatre. "He was straight out of Night of the Iguana ... with the smock and the little palette," recalls the actress, who did several sittings for the amateur painter.

According to D'Aquila, Williams -- who misspelled her name as Dianne D'Acquila -- remained artistically open to suggestion even at the end of his career. During one difficult rehearsal, she recalls messing up her lines and shouted "Fuck!" over and over. "By the end, Tennessee was just roaring," remembers D'Aquila, who apologized profusely to Williams. "He said, 'No, that's all right darling.' And the next day, the rewrites came back and 'Fuck' was written in. And it stuck and was in the show."

Williams, despite mixed reviews, was very satisfied with the Vancouver run -- he wrote that it was the definitive production -- and returned the next year to premiere a new play: The Notebook of Trigorin, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in which D'Aquila originated the role of Masha. It was his penultimate script; he died choking on a bottle cap at the age of 71 a year later.

"What I love about him near the end is he was still working, still trying," recalls D'Aquila of her strange encounters with Williams. "Yes, he was drinking too much. Yes, he wasn't taking care of himself. Yes, he was a very lonely and in many ways a sad man. But he didn't let that keep him down."

- From the National Post, June 2, 2005.