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Is Tennessee Williams our finest playwright? Many think so, and that includes the weighty opinions of figures like the respected theater critic John Lahr and the novelist and literary critic Gore Vidal.

Without performances of the plays themselves in front of you, though, it's difficult to say one way or another. It's not the sort of question that can be settled very well anyway, being more of an intellectual game than a matter of consequence.

The least contentious claim is that more than any other American playwright Williams is remembered for his characters: Stanley, Stella, Mitch, Blanche, Maggie, Brick, Big Daddy, Amanda, Laura and so forth. His plays starting in the 1940s were a godsend to young handsome virile actors (Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, et al.) and emotionally febrile actresses steering crash courses into middle age (Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Geraldine Page, et al.).

Actors love his plays. The lives of his characters are so swollen as to be a kind of free pass to an emotional smorgasbord. Williams noted that what he was looking for was the "true quality of experience" among a group of people. He described that as "that cloudy, flickering, evanescent -- fiercely charged! -- interplay of live human beings in a thundercloud of a common crisis."

That description is specific to one of Williams' best plays, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." It comes via Gavin Cameron-Webb, the Studio Arena Theatre's artistic director, who has researched Williams thoroughly in preparation for a rare theater project that begins this week.

The project traces it roots to the 1960s when Cameron-Webb came to this country from England, landing in New Orleans, and more narrowly in that city's old quarter. As far as he can remember he hadn't even heard of Tennessee Williams. But staying there -- outside his door the bus Desire passed every day, he said -- he came to know Williams' work and came to realize that, aesthetically speaking, Williams owned New Orleans.

Cameron-Webb graduated into theater, acting and directing both here and in Europe, eventually coming to the Studio Arena as its artistic director. For the past half-dozen years he has quietly maneuvered to get up and running a project no one else has had the foresight or nerve to do. He calls it the Tennessee Williams Retrospective.

In outline: starting this week with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" the Studio Arena will stage five of Williams' plays, one a year for five years, surrounding the performances with talks, panel discussions, scholarly papers and movie screenings. (Movies adored the melodramatic aspects of Williams, and made more films of his plays than anyone else's.)

Film retrospectives are fairly common, because they are cheap compared to theater retrospectives, which, production by production, are costly. Theater retrospectives are very uncommon. Very few theaters examine the work of one playwright, and almost no regional theaters that I'm aware of. There is a precedent in our region that has earned acclaim: the Shaw Festival. Aside from its main aim of doing all of Bernard Shaw on a rotating basis, the festival has systematically turned our attention to the serious plays of Noel Coward and to the plays of Harley Granville Barker (a project still ongoing).

Theater-goers, being at the mercy of an ephemeral art form, are grateful for more solid and complete perspectives on their favorite writers. Taking such an approach allows not only the pleasures of performance of tested plays, but also a perspective on one writer's output, a handle among other things on stray claims like his or her being America's finest playwright.

As to be expected, Cameron-Webb directs the first in the set of Williams plays. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" begins preview performances today and formally opens Friday. Two plays certain to be staged in the next years are "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "The Glass Menagerie." Then two others will be chosen from the large body of his work; under consideration are "Summer and Smoke," "Night of the Iguana" and "Vieux Carre."

Like his contemporary Arthur Miller and rival for best-playwright T-shirt, Williams burst on the theater world in the mid-1940s. His plays came in bunches. His first full-length play never made it into New York City, but then there were "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945, "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947, "Summer and Smoke" in 1948, then "The Rose Tattoo" in 1951; "Camino Real" in 1953, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1955, "Orpheus Descending" (a revision of his 1940 play) in 1957, "Suddenly Last Summer" in 1958, "Sweet Bird of Youth" in 1959. He continued writing, though with less commercial success, and died in 1983 at 71 in a New York City hotel in faintly scandalous and heartbreaking circumstances. (Years were spent heavily medicating himself, and his death was ruled to have occurred from choking on the plastic cap of pill bottle.)

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