Theater review

In the wrong hands, “Small Craft Warnings” could be one of America’s dreariest plays. Luckily, it’s in the hands of The Williams Project, which finds a mangled and awkward kind of tenderness among its battered characters — and ends the play with an extra-theatrical gesture so unexpected, so transcendently gorgeous, it casts an unexpectedly warm, backward glow across the previous two hours.

That sounds like hyperbole, but I’m serious — and hesitate to even mention that extraordinary moment. Surprise is part of its power.

Written by Tennessee Williams during the middle of the Vietnam War, “Small Craft Warnings” happens in a dive bar called Monk’s Place, lodged on the coast somewhere between Los Angeles and San Diego. Lights up on Violet (Madeleine Lambert), a grime-streaked and dazed young woman with the delicate pathos of a bruised flower, slumping at the bar. She’s got a beaten-up suitcase at her feet and keens softly into her lap. Doc (Max Rosenak), a doctor whose addictions cost him his license, but who still practices under the table, sizes her up in a clinical way.

“She’s got a not-quite-with-it appearance,” he tells Monk (Lee LeBreton). “Amorphous, that’s the word … Does she think she’s in the waiting room of a depot?”

“I think she thinks she’s moved in here,” Monk answers, with his signature soft deadpan. Things pretty much go downhill from there.

“This is almost a dramatic essay rather than a play,” critic Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times when the play premiered in 1972. “A temperature reading of a time and place.”

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That sounds about right. Characters walk in and out of Monk’s Place (mostly in), trade observations and jabs, talk and fight, make up or don’t. Leona (Kemiyondo Coutinho) is a noisy and aggrieved beautician, furious at her feckless lover, Bill (Richard Prioleau), who’s been flirting with Violet. A washed-up, gay screenwriter wearing an incongruous pocket square (Grant Chapman) comes in with an innocent-faced boy (Lamar Legend) who’s biked from Iowa to the Pacific. Steve, the short-order cook (Dedra D. Woods), is just there to drink and stay out of the mix, even though Violet is his sometime paramour.

“I guess Violet’s a pig,” he says in a direct-address monologue the other characters can’t hear, “and I ought to be ashamed to go around with her.” But, he figures, he’s “got to be satisfied with the Goddam scraps in this world, and Violet’s one of those scraps.” Leona is less kind, describing Violet as a “parasite creature, not even made out of flesh but out of wet biscuit dough.” And yet, even Leona can’t help revealing some tenderness — occasionally to Violet and always for the violin song (Drdla’s “Souvenir”) she loves to play on the jukebox.

The performances are good with a few flashes of excellence. Lambert’s Violet is a genuinely pitiful creature with her dirty knees, tear-streaked mascara and the crumpled expression of a miserable child who’s had not one lollipop, but every sweet thing life had to offer, snatched from her hands. Rosenak and LeBreton, as Doc and Monk, are deep watchers — as the other characters toss around in their self-made tempests, the two look on, and occasionally intervene, with a kind of mournful compassion.

At one point, Doc tells Monk his role in the universe after the room listens to the radio announce a small-craft storm warning along the coast. “That’s right, Monk,” he says, “and you’re running a place of refuge for vulnerable human vessels.”

While Bill, Leona and the rest might be disgusted with each other and themselves, Doc and Monk are beyond that — and director Ryan Guzzo Purcell invites us to move past contempt as well with a semi-immersive setup at Washington Hall that seats us in Monk’s Place instead of watching from the “safe,” potentially dehumanizing distance of a traditional auditorium. A few audience members sit at tables in the bar, while the rest of us line the walls like ghosts. (If ghosts do exist, they must love bars, with their dark corners to hide in and watch the wheel of life creaking along.)

The Williams Project uses the old Washington Hall in a few other inventive ways. When a fight tumbles out of the bar and into the street, the actors shout their way around the building so we can listen in through open windows. (Starting Aug. 15, the theater company will also stage another of its “bar plays” — William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” — in the same venue.)

As for that final moment — I just can’t bring myself to tell you. But it takes the undertone of “Small Craft Warnings,” about troubled people fumbling awkwardly toward something like real community, and makes it real.

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“Small Craft Warnings” by Tennessee Williams. Through Aug. 25; The Williams Project at Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave., Seattle; all performances pay what you will, $30-$50 suggested for those who can afford it; thewilliamsproject.org