Zeitgeist Stage Company is a troupe that thrives when it examines new or recent work of social significance, though producing artistic director David J. Miller also has a taste for repeat visits to the work of a single playwright to wring out different shadings of a writer’s voice. Two-thirds of Zeitgeist’s current season is given over to an exploration of some less-celebrated nooks and crannies in the oeuvre of Tennessee Williams, whose canon of full-length classics is augmented by voluminous short stories and short plays, two novels, and sundry other works.
Six of those short stories are the source material for “Desire,” a collection of newly commissioned short plays based on Williams’s work that premiered in 2015 and is now onstage at Boston Center for the Arts. If “Eight By Tenn,” the program of short plays Zeitgeist presented last fall, felt a bit like a forensic examination of ideas Williams would later develop more successfully in other contexts, “Desire” stands more assertively on its own.
Yes, there’s the sense of that hazy, swollen thing baked into Williams’s aesthetic, filtered through the wounded sentimentality of a white, gay man writing in the Jim Crow South who spied romanticism in life’s hardships. But there are also mobile phones and Chaco sandals, and the voices of six American playwrights gamely aiming to adapt Williams without resorting to heavy-handed pastiche.
Miller is at the helm, and he benefits from the convincing work of a nine-person cast, all but one newcomers to the company. Some of these short plays call for abrupt shifts in perspective or in characters’ emotional states, and Miller must be credited here for the careful pacing and firm sense of purpose that motors these pieces. Jay Mobley’s sound design (chiefly, well-selected bits of European classical music) and Michael Clark Wonson’s lighting design are assets as well.
Margaret Dransfield acquits herself well in Elizabeth Egloff’s “Attack of the Giant Tent Worms,” as one half of a young couple whose Cape Cod vacation is disrupted by mental illness and an all-consuming metaphor. And as a Southern sorority sister with a safe future mapped out for her in Rebecca Gilman’s “The Field of Blue Children,” she ably reveals more to the audience about her motivations than the character herself seems to be consciously aware of. As her privileged bro-friend, Eric McGowan instantly evokes a contemporary stereotype with only a few words and Elizabeth Cole Sheehan’s carefully chosen costume pieces.
Damon Singletary brought elegant menace to “Eight By Tenn” and does the same here, particularly in Marcus Gardley’s “Desire Quenched by Touch.” As a mysterious masseur, Singletary moves with quiet confidence, projecting the sense that he knows more than he’s willing to reveal. As his best customer, Sam Terry haunts the piece with melancholic charisma. (The honesty of their performances is undercut by Williams’s showy twist ending, alas.)
The piece of most interest to Williams fanatics may be “You Lied to Me About Centralia,” adapted by John Guare from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass,” the short story that proved the kernel for “The Glass Menagerie.” Its centerpiece is a long speech by Jim, the gentleman caller of “Menagerie,” played by McGowan. He brings some sense of naturalism to language that seems better suited to prose. Katie Flanagan plays his fiancee Betty, who first unfurls her own story about a house visit that doesn’t go as expected. Each of them is a pleasure to watch as Jim and Betty recount stories that reveal more about their private longings than they would wish.
If Miller doesn’t do quite enough to prepare us for the sometimes-jarring mix of moods and time periods traversed in these six pieces, he does craft a satisfying dose of the work of Williams, once removed.
Plays by Elizabeth Egloff, Marcus Gardley, Rebecca Gilman, David Grimm, John Guare, and Beth Henley. Based on short stories by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 20. Tickets $10-$30, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.