It’s easy for actors to wring passion and anguish out of Tennessee Williams’ writing. His plays shifted the style of American theater. He wrote characters that were misfits and outcasts. He stirred up issues that were often taboo in his time: homosexuality, lust, depression and other “mental illnesses.” Actors such as Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman immortalized his steamy and animalistic scenes on film. Williams drew heavily on his own life as inspiration, navigating tempestuous relationships and battling substance abuse even as he rigorously created his art.
“He was a very prolific character,” says Santiago Candelaria, who plays Williams in Rancho Pancho, a play by Gregg Barrios. “Not only in his writing but just in his way of being, how he moved through what he did.” The play, presented by Camino Real Productions, and running at the National Hispanic Cultural Center through Aug. 7, explores the relationship between Williams and one of his partners, Pancho Rodriguez. “He was a compulsive worker and it sort of shows up in everything he did,” Candelaria says. “He worked compulsively, he drank compulsively, he smoked compulsively, he took pills compulsively, he had sex compulsively.”
For Candelaria, it’s an exciting opportunity to play the role. He says he’s always loved Williams but never expected to be cast in a work by him, let alone as Williams himself. “Typically I’m cast in browner characters, if you will.” He researched meticulously, poring over biographies, films, plays, short stories and anything else he could get his hands on. He says he wanted to learn everything he could about Williams and the circle of friends in which he moved.
Williams met Pancho Rodriguez in 1945, and the two lived and traveled together for two years. They dubbed each place they stayed “Rancho Pancho.” Accounts of the relationship describe it as passionate and loving but also turbulent. And Rodriguez is not a well-known figure in history. “There’s very little about who Rodriguez was and what happened to him,” Candelaria says, “and biographers have all agreed to keep him out of it.” Playwright Barrios sheds light on him in Rancho Pancho however, which is partially based on letters written between the two men.
“He worked compulsively, he drank compulsively, he smoked compulsively, he took pills compulsively, he had sex compulsively.”
Rodriguez was a muse for Williams’ writing. He is thought to have been the inspiration for Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Famed director Elia Kazan wrote in his memoir, Elia Kazan: A Life, “If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley.” Los Angeles-based Benny Briseño, who is acting the role of Pancho Rodriguez in the Albuquerque production, also portrayed the character in the play’s premiere. He says the original Rancho Pancho was the first time he acted after college, and he appreciates being able to step into the role again. “And so now that I have a few more plays under my belt,” he says, “it’s now three years later—I think I’ve grown as a person.”
Briseño says the play is a great opportunity to see the relationship between two people who are very passionate about each other. They’re also two big personalities, one of whom is legendary. “It’s Tennessee Williams for heaven’s sake,” Briseño says. “Here you have this phenomenal playwright with this phenomenal writing. Why don’t you come see where he got a lot of his influences from?”