"Everything in his life is in his plays and everything in his plays is in his life."
On any short list of great American playwrights you'll find the name Tennessee, aka Thomas Lanier Williams III, born a century ago in Mississippi. A Southerner by birth, manner and pen name, he enjoyed his greatest success on Broadway with a string of box-office smash masterpieces from 1948 to 1961, among them "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Sweet Bird of Youth."
To mark the centennial (his birthday was March 26), Guild Hall Friday night presents "Tennessee at 100: Readings and Reminiscence of Tennessee Williams," featuring Eli Wallach, Mercedes Ruehl and Harris Yulin, who also directs the proceedings.
BORN TO WRITE "The idea is to have every word be Tennessee's," says Yulin. He said the "Tennessee at 100" project came to him two summers ago, when he directed Amy Irving in "The Glass Menagerie" at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater. "It's his most autobiographical play," says Yulin. "It's very clear that Laura is based on his sister, Rose," he said, referring to the shy character for whom the prospect of a gentleman caller is daunting. Williams' sister was beset by emotional turmoil that landed her in a mental institution for much of her adult life. Amanda, Laura's overbearing mother, is based on the Williams matriarch, Edwina, while the restless son who brings the gentleman caller home is Tennessee himself. He didn't even bother to change the name. Williams' family called him Tom.
But it's from the playwright's voluminous letters, essays and short-stories that Yulin draws most of tonight's material. "I wasn't familiar with his prose," Yulin says. "It shows what an amazing writer he was. He's so clear and transparent that when the words are recited you can almost hear him speaking."
TENNESSEE CONNECTIONS "This is perfect for Eli," says Yulin of the Tennessee Williams contemporary. Wallach, 95, starred in Williams' "Camino Real" in 1953, turning down the role of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity," thereby giving Frank Sinatra his movie breakthrough. Later, Wallach starred in the steamy film "Baby Doll," directed by Kazan from Williams' screenplay, and in the original "Rose Tattoo" on Broadway. A generation later, Ruehl starred in the 1995 "Rose Tattoo" revival. Yulin, best known for his TV and film supporting roles, appeared in Williams' "Night of the Iguana."
Following the readings, the threesome will be joined in the finale by young actress Justine Lupe-Schomp in Williams' one-act play "Paradise."
"Tennessee's writings," Yulin says, "are miracles of prose."
WHEN | WHERE Friday night at 8, Guild Hall's John Drew Theater, 158 Main St., East Hampton
INFO $30; guildhall.org, 631-324-4050