Shannon, the defrocked Episcopalian priest in Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana, is a role that suits actors who are possessed of - and sometimes possessed by - a wild streak and who are not afraid to steer perilously close to the edge. Witness Richard Burton in the 1964 film version. Now Woody Harrelson, another film actor whose life off-screen has been far from cloistered or risk-averse, tackles the part in Anthony Page's accomplished, largely persuasive revival at the Lyric. It proves to be a shrewd piece of casting.
Banned from his church for blasphemy and a taste for underage girls, Shannon has switched to being a tour guide. On the verge of one of his recurrent breakdowns, he arrives with a party of scandalised Baptist female school teachers at the Costa Verde, a raffish hotel at the edge of the Mexican rain forest. Here, during a dark night of the soul. He winds up restrained by being roped to a hammock with arms outstretched like a more comfortable version of Christ.
To the jealous resentment of Maxine, the lusty, newly widowed proprietress, he also experiences a kind of spiritual one-night stand with another guest, Hannah, a New England spinster artist who has travelled the world in a life of hand-to-mouth vagrancy with her nonagenarian poet-grandfather. One lost soul reaches out to another and together they achieve a fragile moment of grace.
Though he could usefully turn up the heat on his performance, Harrelson makes a strong impression as a man nursing a fever and tormented by paranoid inner demons. Jittery and intense, he's excellent at the reckless end-of-the-tether humour of this character and he finely suggests that rejecting the narrow Old Testament God has not diminished his impassioned missionary drive; it's just been diverted into forcing people (as Williams's own plays do) to see life whole, with its seamy underside not edited out.
He also adroitly captures the edge of indulgent self-dramatisation in Shannon. As he thrashes around on the hammock, Hannah wittily notes that his seems a pretty luxurious crucifixion - no nails, no blood, no death.
The spinster could come across as a somewhat fabricated foil to the former priest - contained, stoic and saintly. A luminous goodness certainly radiates from Jenny Seagrove's compelling performance, but she also lets you see the refined, dryly humorous hustler, forced to live on her perceptive, watchful assessment of strangers.
Seagrove movingly underlines Hannah's dignity in destitution, so that the wisdom she imparts to Shannon about the need for endurance feels authentically hard-won and in no danger of disappearing up its own holiness.
Playing her antithesis Maxine, the splendid Clare Higgins gives the proceedings a regular booster-jab of raunchy, bacchanalian energy as a ballsy, hard-drinking, straight-talking broad who, you feel, would be more than a match for Bette Davis who originated the role.
Nichola McAuliffe turns in a fiercely funny cameo as the militantly affronted leader of the Baptist ladies who rightly fetches Shannon an almighty wallop when he accuses her of being lesbian.
The production, though, could do with a bit more brooding sultriness. This one is not going to have the traditional Tennessee Williams effect and cause a thirsty interval-stampede for the bar.Reuse content