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 movie star 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 under restraint - 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 middle-aged 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 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 finely suggests that rejecting the narrow Old Testament God has not diminished his 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's also adroitly captures the edge of indulgent self-dramatisation in Shannon. As he thrashes around tied to the hammock, Hannah notes that his seems a luxurious crucifixion - no nails, no blood, no death.
The spinster could come across as a fabricated foil to the ex-priest - stoic and saintly. A luminous goodness radiates from Jenny Seagrove's compelling performance, but she also lets you see the refined, dryly humorous hustler, forced to live by her perceptive assessment of strangers. Seagrove underlines Hannah's lonely dignity in destitution, so the wisdom she offers Shannon concerning 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 proceedings a regular booster-jab of raunchy energy as a ballsy, hard-drinking 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 wallops Shannon when he accuses her of being a lesbian. She's not in competition with him: she's just protecting her charges from a noted "chicken"-fancier.
Plays in which the leading characters symbolise aspects of the dramatist's soul can be insufferably hermetic. But there's an expansive generosity of spirit in this piece which avoids the sentimentality of excessive self-blame because Hannah and Maxine, in their different ways, both have Shannon's number.
It's been said that the ex-priest's decision to stay with the latter is an index of the author's intention to opt for the indiscipline of boys, booze and bars. But within the play, you feel the bumpy party of the life he'll lead with Maxine is the hero's best chance of stability.
All this is deftly intimated here. But the production could do with more brooding sultriness. As it stands, this Night of the Iguana is not going to have the traditional Tennessee Williams effect and cause a thirsty interval stampede for the bar.
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