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In thanks to Tennessee and those who brought his works to life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2011 - Lana Pepper and William Roth don't just sit around and have conversations about supporting the arts in the region. Quite on the contrary,  they make it their business to make art happen, thus distinguishing themselves as actors not only on the theatrical stage but on the civic stage as well. One is prompted, thus, to remark that they are producers as well as actors and  capable ones at that.

Last weekend, the Beacon found itself a beneficiary of their industry and moxie, and before any more time goes by I want to say thanks to them on our site, and to tell them how much their work means to us, and how the work they do contributes in wondrous ways to us, to the neighborhood and to the region.

Both Pepper and Roth were stage struck way back when. For years both  have given time, money and energy make serious theater happen. Pepper, among other things, is a resolute supporter of the Shakespeare Festival and devotes time to the St. Louis Actors' Studio. A mention of the Actors' Studio brings us to William Roth, another stalwart thespian who is capable both in front of the lights and in the wings. Roth breathed life into Actors' Studio and created a place to showcase its work, the Gaslight Theater on Boyle Avenue, just north of Lindell in the West End.

Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, Pepper produced selections from three works by Tennessee Williams, and as far as we know, her production is the only local production to mark the centenary of Williams, who grew up in St. Louis. Despite the playwright's professed dislike of the Mound City, he nevertheless was affected by it personally and artistically. One is left to wonder whether, had his spirit not been so seared here, he could have produced work that is itself so searing.

Pepper donated all three performances of her show to worthy causes - to Actors' Studio, to the Beacon and to the Central West End Association. All three of us raised some money at the box office, but the rewards were more in the artistic satisfaction department than in our treasuries.

Six actors - Colleen Backer, Bob Elliott, Kim Furlow, Shanara Gabrielle, Mark Kelley and Michael James Reed - performed with lapidary brilliance. The scenes were tough. Pepper made it her business to extract some of the most affecting and confounding and, yes, disturbing passages from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "A Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and to bring them to us with exceptional authority. The playhouse is tiny. It provides literal meaning to "in your face." It seats only a hundred customers or so, and such intimacy allowed the agonizing wonder of Williams' words to saturate skins and psyches.

It's not impossible - it's even likely - that the boy Tom Williams passed by the building that houses the Gaslight Theater; for a while, he, his mother and his sister Rose lived about four blocks away, on the corner of Westminster Place and Walton Avenue. His first play was produced in 1937 at the Wednesday Club, then housed in the Theodore Link-designed building at Westminster Place and Taylor, across the street from Second Presbyterian, which was also designed by Link. The Wednesday Club building is now the Learning Center.

As Williams walked around the streets of the Central West End as a boy, he had no way of knowing that years and years later, in the heart of that neighborhood, he would have such a profound effect on audiences who came to see and hear his work, and to feel the surgery of his words.

For me, however, the notion of his having been so close to us yet so very distant was spine tingling. And the evocation of these visceral feelings, a conflation of time, space, place and art, brought forth a sense of awe and of gratitude on Saturday evening, and now again here.

Standing in awe of Lana and William, I'm so grateful to them for their keen understanding not only of art but of craft as well, and for giving so much to the region.

I'm grateful too to the Beacon's friends and supporters who formed such a marvelous and receptive audience on Saturday evening and to my colleagues on the staff for bringing this work forward.

Finally  gratitude is due Thomas Lanier Williams himself, the tortured genius who renamed himself Tennessee, the lost and lonely Mississippi-St. Louis boy who would become one of the two or three greatest playwrights America ever produced. This appreciation springs from having been turned inside out emotionally by the likes of his characters Brick and Big Daddy, by poor old Blanche and even poorer Laura, by the broken unicorn and by all the characters whose razory realities help us to understand not only the mean-spiritedness and darkness that dwell within us and haunt us, but kindness as well, and light, qualities that offer the potential of achieving goodness or even, sometimes, maybe, nobility.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.