Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Tennessee Williams wrote lots of short stories, sometimes as practice pieces for his famous plays, sometimes as self-contained odes to his favorite theme of poetic isolation. None is finer than "One Arm," the tale of Oliver Winemiller, a beautiful young boxer who becomes so embittered after losing an arm in a car accident that he turns to prostitution. Williams comes perilously close to sentimentalizing his desirable young hero in the early sections of the tale, but by the end he has toughly insisted on the tragedy of this boy's disconnection from the people in his life. As was usual for Williams, he didn't feel that the short story itself had brought out the maximum potential of the material, and so he made it into a screenplay, but no one was interested in a movie about a male hustler and any film version would have had to solve the problem of how to convincingly suggest Oliver's mutilated arm. In Moisés Kaufman's stage adaptation of the screenplay, which he also directed, he has a narrator (Noah Bean) read Williams's descriptions of the actions and asks us to use our imagination about the missing arm. Oliver, played by Claybourne Elder, is now called Ollie Olsen, and in most of the scenes Elder is wearing a tank top and has a belt tied around the elbow of his right arm to indicate the missing part. This never quite works; only in a few brief scenes where Ollie is wearing a long-sleeved shirt is Elder able to convince us of the lost arm.
Still, this Kaufman version of One Arm (through July 3) is intelligently conceived from start to finish, and as it goes on, Williams's compassion for almost all of his characters comes across even more so than it does in his short story because he has more time to develop Ollie's confusion, anger and desperate loneliness as he waits in a cell to go to the electric chair for killing a man. The whole show is dependent on the actor playing the central character of Ollie, and Elder is ideally cast in this difficult part. While most actresses delight in Williams's multifaceted, juicy female roles, many actors have talked about the problems of making Williams's fantasy males real. Most of these male roles aren't really actable; they depend mainly on the ability to evoke certain qualities at certain times. Elder is convincing as the kind of statue-like, inscrutable presence that might make nearly seven hundred men and a few women write to Ollie in prison to thank him for their one-night stand, and as the play goes on, Elder gradually reveals the growing shades of conscience and feeling in Ollie. By the last scene, where Ollie reaches out for physical affection himself, Elder has hit a note of pure, frustrated longing that amplifies the ending of the necessarily more opaque short story. Kaufman's directorial approach is cool and even distant throughout, but this approach allows for Williams's empathetic theme to burn more brightly in the end.
(Photo: Monique Carboni)