Conventional wisdom has it that Tennessee Williams wrote nine or 10 great plays between 1944 and 1961, and you can pretty much disregard everything else. That wisdom has been put to the test in recent years by productions of his lesser-known works at Hartford Stage and elsewhere.
And now SpeakEasy Stage Company gets into the act with a soul-stirring, beautifully realized production of ''Five by Tenn" -- five Williams one-acts from before and after his ''golden age," plus the second scene of ''Vieux Carré," a 1977 play. It's right up there with the best work that SpeakEasy has ever done.
It's also among the best that director Scott Edmiston has done, which is saying quite a bit, as that body of work includes the Nora Theatre Company's ''Betrayal," Gloucester Stage's ''Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," and Opera Boston's ''Nixon in China." These five one-acts are not top-of-the-line Tennessee, but Edmiston makes the case that the lesser work of a great artist is of more interest than the best work of a good craftsman.
Any artist of Williams's stature creates a world of his own that says things about the world at large. ''Five by Tenn" brings Williams's universe of French Quarter loneliness and quiet desperation fully alive. It's peopled with love-starved poets and romantic drag queens wanting more than society says they can have, but often settling for sex with the wrong people or boozy fantasies.
Credit goes primarily to Edmiston for crafting these six pieces into such a cohesive whole. For example, Eric Rubbe plays a painfully shy usher in ''These Are the Stairs You Got to Watch," then morphs into a Tom-like character from ''The Glass Menagerie" in ''Summer at the Lake." The sequence also suggests the presence of the playwright himself, as the protagonists go from a beleaguered young man to an artist on death's door, thrown aside by a feckless society constantly on the hunt for something new.
In ''Five by Tenn" we see a playwright developing his voice with his early works, and writing about homosexuality and death with frankness and lucidity in his later ones. If the situations don't lend themselves to movies starring Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor, they are nonetheless poetic and distinctive. And they round out the Williams oeuvre in profoundly personal terms.
Edmiston not only puts these plays together -- ''Mister Paradise," ''I Can't Imagine Tomorrow," and ''And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens" are the others -- with the same insight that he showed in moving the ''Brel" songs around, he's built a terrific creative team. The actors come from far and wide (Trinity Repertory Company's Anne Scurria and Allyn Burrows, a Shakespeare & Company veteran), as well as the Boston area (Christopher Brophy brings the same danger to the proceedings that he did in ''Take Me Out," and Ellen Adair, who played Thomasina in ''Arcadia," continues to show great promise). Rubbe, William Young, Mary Klug, and Will McGarrahan are equally impressive. Burrows, in men's garb or women's, is the standout.
The director also reassembles the same designers who made ''Betrayal" and ''Brel" so richly atmospheric -- Janie E. Howland (set), Gail Buckley (costumes), and Karen Perlow (lights). Howland's dominating Bourbon Street balcony immediately sets us in Williams country while providing Edmiston and the actors just the right spaces for everything from brawls to bedroom courtships. And Dewey Dellay's original music strikes all the right blue notes.
Tennessee Williams would have been right at home in these settings. This fine production certainly is.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.