The name Jacob Storms’ Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams is fairly self-explanatory. Actor, Jacob Storms, performs a one-man show as a young Tom Williams that charts a rough path through the American playwright’s rise to fame. Directed by Alan Cumming, this production shows Williams’ growth and change throughout his formative years, taking a new name (from Tom to Tennessee), and drawing inspiration from his life as he pulls together ideas for his writing.
The plot follows Williams from early childhood, and is told through a series of vignettes that explore his relationship with his parents, his travels across the country and adventures with the American intelligentsia as his career begins to take shape. Throughout this, Storm convincingly depicts the changes that Williams goes through, making for a coherent sense of progression as the more mature (and familiar) playwright begins to take shape.
Family trauma is a pervasive theme, and several emotional scenes are arresting in both their detail and sensitivity as Williams wrestles with the mental illness and eventual institutionalisation of his sister. Storms’ talent shines through here, but occasionally feels unsupported by lacklustre sound design. Sound effects are often tinny and feel a bit removed from the action on-stage.
The show only begins to feel truly intimate after the first 15 or so minutes. Storms’ performance begins slightly awkwardly, which prevents the audience from fully relaxing into what is otherwise an excellent production. This is a pity considering the venue: the Assembly Rooms’ Front Room is a remarkably sound-proof converted shipping container, which feels pleasantly detached from the busy street on which it sits.
At a few points in the show the acting, writing and direction of Storm and Cumming combine to construct an engrossing insight into Williams’ mind. His queer identity is explored in considerable depth, and Storms’ more physical scenes are exciting, passionate and often tragic. Also worth a mention is the political side to his character; his cutting observations on American fascism and the connections between 1930s capitalism and the Third Reich provide welcome nuance to a well-trodden Second World War backdrop.
To sum up, this production is occasionally disjointed, but in general an insightful and moving experience. I am no expert on Tennessee Williams, but the portrait that Storms and Cumming have painted offers up an engrossing insight into Williams’ identity in his younger years.
Written by: Jacob Storms
Directed by: Alan Cumming
Jacob Storms’ Tennessee Rising: The Dawn of Tennessee Williams plays at Assembly Rooms for EdFringe 2023 until 27 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.