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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Overcast
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An ex-minister faces his demons in Madison Theatre Guild's The Night of the Iguana
Patrick O'Hara (right) brings a palpable desperation to Reverend Shannon.
Credit:Jason Atkins

The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon is at the end of his rope. Arriving in a small town in Mexico in the off-season, the former minister-turned-travel guide has a fever, a bus full of irate Texas teachers on holiday, and a sinking feeling he's about to suffer another nervous breakdown, if he's not arrested first. These desperate circumstances open the admirable but uneven production of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana by Madison Theatre Guild (through Oct. 5 at the Bartell Theatre).

The leader of Shannon's sour and angry tour group, Judith Fellowes (played to full effect by Deborah Hearst), is unhappy about more than just the detours from promised tourist sites. She is determined to get Shannon fired and indicted for statutory rape after her young charge, Charlotte (played by a shrill Alexandra Soglin), spends a passionate night with the ex-minister. Deborah Hearst brings the boiling temper of a wronged Baptist to the role, energizing each scene she's in.

Shannon (Patrick O'Hara) seeks refuge from his detractors and demons at the Costa Verde Hotel, a rundown resort whose only assets are a view of the beach and a never-ending supply of rum kokos. The manager, Maxine, tries to calm him with offers of sex, liquor and permanent refuge on her veranda, but panic sets in as he faces his moral and spiritual failures.

Instead, the woman who nurses Shannon through the long, tempestuous night is another tortured soul, an artist named Hannah (Julie Jarvis). A reserved New England spinster with her own tragic past, she dutifully travels the world with her declining, elderly grandfather who was once a minor poet.

Jenny Maahs is Maxine, the lusty and loud hotel manager who is seemingly unmoved by her husband's recent death. Maahs exhibits real strength and conviction in her (literal) wrestling match with the ex-minister on the verge of psychosis, but does not quite capture Maxine's world-weary longing for a human connection, one that her character laments was painfully missing during her marriage.

O'Hara brings a palpable desperation to Shannon, a mixture of delirium, defeat, self-loathing and misplaced righteousness. When he looks over his shoulder to see if "the spook" is still following him, the audience looks, too, hoping he will be kept at bay. But he is not as charismatic as his character's trail of broken underage hearts would attest, or as fragile as one would expect from his questionable mental state.

Unfortunately, O'Hara and Jarvis have trouble finding the connection and understanding that each of their characters needs to survive the night. Coupled with lack of emotional build or momentum in the second act, Shannon and Hannah's release from their personal demons at the end of the play doesn't register enough.

The most delightful performance by far was given by Tom Haig, who jokes in the program that he does not often play a character who is older than he is. The 92-year-old actor plays Hannah's 97-year-old grandfather, who has been struggling to finish a poem for decades. His recitation of the finished work, a sad ode to a dying lemon, was a moment of beautiful clarity set in a tropical atmosphere of rapid decay.

Set designer Fred-Allen Self deserves praise for his meticulous creation of the Costa Verde Hotel, complete with a garden full of ferns and tropical plants, a faux terra cotta roof, and mismatched room numbers hung precariously above each door.

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