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'Mr. Williams and Miss Wood'

Playwright Tennessee Williams called them "blue devils" in his "The Night of the Iguana" — bouts of anxiety or depression that made him almost suicidal. These moods shattered his life but fed his creativity.

Such behind-the-scenes drama fascinates theater lovers as much as Williams' plays do, and Ashland Contemporary Theatre's production of "Mr. Williams and Miss Wood" takes an overarching look at his career and his relationship with his literary agent, Audrey Wood.

The two-character play by Max Wilk — published by Dramatists Play Service in 1990 — tells the story Wood's discovery of Williams and how she mentored his genius into theatrical success. Alexei Menedes plays Williams, and Vanessa Hopkins plays Wood. Jeannine Grizzard directs.

"For many years, I performed Virginia Woolf's seminal essay, 'A Room of One's Own,' which poses the question: What are the everyday conditions required to create great works of art, and why have there been so few masterworks by women?" Grizzard writes in her director's notes.

It is women who have provided the underlying conditions that foster genius. In the world of women in 20th-century business, literary agent Audrey Wood dedicated her life to spotting and nurturing talent for American theater. She represented William Inge, Arthur Kopit, Brian Friel and Carson McCullers. A New York Times obituary declared that her devotion and tireless efforts on behalf of clients were legendary, Grizzard writes.

Disliking the word "agent" because she felt it was too commercial and undignified, Wood said, "When I fall in love with a talent, I fall headlong."

This feeling went double for Williams. Six years his senior, Wood encouraged, mentored and consoled the young playwright with the tenacity of a mother, Grizzard adds.

Tragically, that role made Wood vulnerable to a relentless stream of negative projections as Williams nursed his creativity with alcohol and narcotics, finally inhibiting it with addiction.

His hard-won rise to fame in his 30s had been too much attention for the alienated Williams, a homosexual fish-out-of-water living in '50s culture. And Wood, the friend who helped him carve out his success, was blamed.

Wood discovered Williams in 1939. It was under her steadying influence that Williams unleashed his genius. After years of obscurity, he became famous with "The Glass Menagerie" in 1944, which heralded successes "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and more. Williams' work laid open a vein in the American psyche, sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, but always honest.

Performances of "Mr. Williams and Miss Wood" will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 14; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 15; 8 p.m. Saturday, June 21; 2 p.m. Sunday, June 22; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, June 26-27 (the June 27 show will be presented at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 E. Nevada St., Ashland); and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 29, at the Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Tickets cost $15 and can be purchased at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org, Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, and by calling 541-646-2971.

Vannessa Hopkins plays Audrey Wood and Alexei Menedes is Tennessee Williams in Ashland Contemporary Theatre's production of 'Mr. Williams and Miss Wood.'