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How a brush with Tennessee Williams led a doctor back to theater

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Peter Philips was a young surgical intern at New York City's Bellevue Hospital when he decided one day, on impulse, to fly to Jamaica. It was January 1964. Passing through Ocho Rios one evening, he stopped at an outdoor cafe for a bite. As he sat alone, he could not help overhearing a boisterous and boozy conversation between a man and a woman at a nearby table. He recognized the woman as Australian actress Zoe Caldwell, but he didn't know the man. When Caldwell left, Philips asked the waiter who the gentleman was. The reply left Philips, a passionate theater buff, stunned: It was legendary playwright Tennessee Williams. A moment later, the waiter brought Philips a glass of brandy, compliments of Mr. Williams, with an invitation to join him at his table. The invitation was not a come-on, Philips maintains. "It never got there, never approached that at all. He wanted company."

Philips sat down and introduced himself. "From there on, he called me 'young doctor.' I don't think he remembered my name." After a few drinks, Williams asked Philips for a ride back to his house, where the two spent the next several hours talking. "He . . . read some poems, talked about Glass Menagerie, I remember. It just went on and on."

At one point Williams excused himself to go to the bathroom. After waiting for quite a while for the great dramatist to return, Philips wandered down the hall to investigate. He found Williams splayed on his bed, fully dressed, passed out cold. "He still had his cape on," Philips remembers. Unsure what else to do, he untied the cape from Williams' neck, removed his shoes, placed a coverlet over him, turned down the lights and left. He never saw Williams again.

Fifty-three years, four children and six grandchildren later, Dr. Philips is still fascinated with the life and works of Tennessee Williams.

A native New Yorker raised by "culture vultures," Philips has loved theater, he says, since the age of 8. While his parents hoped he would follow in his physician father's footsteps, he started college as a drama major. Later, after much soul- searching, he chose to pursue medicine after all. He was advised to take this more practical path by a fellow alumnus of Ohio's Kenyon College named Paul Newman. Yes, that Paul Newman, whom Philips finagled an opportunity to see backstage after a show in 1959. (The show, incidentally, was a Williams play, Sweet Bird of Youth.) Philips told the doorman that he'd gone to the same school as Newman, and that he'd won an acting award that Newman had sponsored. It was enough to get him in. He and Newman "had a nice chat," Philips says. Wanting the established actor's opinion, Philips explained that he'd been accepted to both medical school and the Yale School of Drama, but he was unsure which way to go. Newman warned him against an acting career. "I listened to him instead of my mother," Philips says, laughing. He returned to medical school in New York, graduating in 1963. After completing his residency at Bellevue, he took specialty training in cardiac surgery, completing his medical education in 1970.

Peter Philips directs three plays by Tennessee Williams, whom he met in 1964, at the Downtown Dance Collective Jan. 20 and 21. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Peter Philips directs three plays by Tennessee Williams, whom he met in 1964, at the Downtown Dance Collective Jan. 20 and 21.

Dr. Philips' long career as a cardiologist included a stint in Missoula, where he helped establish an open-heart surgery program at St. Patrick Hospital in the late 1970s. After that, he practiced for several years in Polson. Upon retiring in 2001, he moved to the Seattle area, where he soaked up the culture and cruised around in his 36-foot Grand Banks boat.

By 2010, however, a bad back had slowed him down to the point where walking, much less boating, was difficult. With energy yet to burn, he returned to Missoula and to his first love, the theater. In addition to performing with MCT and other local groups, he enrolled, at age 73, in the acting program at the University of Montana, earning his MFA in 2015. The subject of his master's thesis was, not surprisingly, the work of Tennessee Williams—specifically the playwright's artistic journey from realism to expressionism. Last year, he taught a MOLLI class on the same topic. This weekend's presentation, Tennessee Williams: Three One-Act Plays at the Downtown Dance Collective, is something of an extension of that theme. Philips is the show's producer and director. The ensemble cast of local talent includes Ann Peacock, Sarah Lloyd, Henry Mayer, Hugh Butterfield and Christina Scruggs.

The show, composed of three short one-acts—The One Exception, The Pretty Trap and The Chalky White Substance—showcases different phases of Williams' progression as a dramatist. In The One Exception, the last play he wrote before his death in 1983, an artist named Kyla, who has suffered a nervous breakdown, gets a visit from Violet, an old frenemy from New York, who viciously natters on about the glamorous world that Kyla is no longer a part of. Philips describes it as "a poem, if you will . . . to [Williams'] sister Rose," who as a young woman had undergone a prefrontal lobotomy. "He took good care of her," Philips says.

That Rose was often her brother's muse is also evident in The Pretty Trap. Written in 1944, it is an early Williams work that evolved into the full-length masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. (Spoiler: the former ends more happily than the latter.) In 1980's The Chalky White Substance, set in a post-apocalyptic future, a bitter older man torments his younger, gentler lover in a barren and brutal hellscape. This play in particular reveals Williams' experimental, expressionistic side, which has been largely ignored and perhaps misunderstood.

"There's been so little Tennessee Williams done here, at least since I've been back," Philips says. "So that's why we're here."

Peter Philips presents Tennessee Williams: Three One-Act Plays plays at the Downtown Dance Collective Fri., Jan. 20, at 7 PM and Sat., Jan. 21, at 10 PM. $15 general, $14 seniors and $12 students. Visit ddcmontana.com.

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