The eight short plays Zeitgeist Stage Company is currently mounting are tales of people whose lives are built on precious illusions. Some of the plays are humid with repressed sexuality, and most are darkened by a hovering sense of foreboding that promises to burst open and drench the unlucky souls underneath, like a summer storm. That is to say, they’re written by Tennessee Williams.
There’s plenty here for the Williams aficionado to dig through, like the character in “Portrait of a Madonna” who perhaps anticipates Blanche Dubois — and indeed it was Jessica Tandy’s performance in the role that moved Williams to cast her as the original Blanche, a year later — and the general preponderance of good roles for women. There’s also “The One Exception,” the last one-act he wrote before his death in 1983, whose portrait of a woman about to be institutionalized invites us to wonder about an autobiographical connection with Williams’s mentally ill sister.
The program, dubbed “Eight By Tenn,” is only the company’s third time moving to the larger BCA Plaza Theatre from the adjacent black box space. Doing double duty as director and scenic designer, as usual, is Zeitgeist founder and artistic director David J. Miller.
Most of the plays date from the early to mid-1940s, plus two from 1958 and “Exception.” They work well together as a piece, and the performances are strong if not uniformly riveting. As written, the plays are so tightly drawn that any dramatic slack leaves them misshapen. Miller might have let certain moments simmer longer; the program could benefit from dropping one selection and leaving more room to breathe.
Alexandra Smith and Karin Trachtenberg, newcomers to Zeitgeist, each appear in four of the plays. Miller would do well to keep casting them. Smith specializes here in the fading-Southern-beauty type, including turns as a prostitute who spins fanciful stories to obscure vulnerability (“The Lady of Larkspur Lotion”) and, most significantly, the sadly deluded hotel guest in “Madonna” who is still so magnetic that it breaks the manager’s heart to throw her out.
Trachtenberg is wonderful as the haunted Kyra in “Exception,” an heiress who must be coaxed out of her room to speak with an old roommate. Her key role here, though, is as Miss Cornelia Scott in “Something Unspoken,” a Southern aristocrat who wishes, it seems, to acknowledge the romantic tension between her and her longtime housemate and secretary, Miss Grace Lancaster (played by Kelley Estes, also excellent throughout).
The wonderfully dark “Auto-da-fé” (the title comes from a Portuguese phrase related to issuing judgment of the accused during the Spanish Inquisition) comes off particularly well, due largely to the smoldering performance of Damon Singletary as a postal clerk wrestling with the suffocating weight of guilt. This and “The Unsatisfactory Supper” may be the most tautly drawn pieces here, but Williams has each lurch toward an extravagant climax that the material doesn’t really require.
As to be expected from Williams, the subtext is always paramount, but sometimes the audience has to work a little too hard to sort out the basics of a scene before letting its implications unfold. The casting of “Supper” is either confusing or an interesting revision of the play. It’s written as a front-porch tale involving a husband and wife and her aunt. But it appears here to be about a young woman (Rae Bell), her father (or grandfather, played by Zach Winston), and a housekeeper (Michelle Dowd) — and that latter shift would put a particularly fascinating twist on the dynamics at play. Let’s just credit Miller with a stroke of inspiration.
The playwright had many, of course, and this is a good sampler.
EIGHT BY TENN
Plays by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, through Oct. 8. Tickets: 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.comJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin