Amanda Plummer & James Earl Jones/Gretjen Helene Photography/A.R.T.

One of the hottest tickets of the season is the American Repertory Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA starring James Earl Jones– but the star of the show is the incandescent AMANDA PLUMMER who cuts loose from most of the rest of the cast leaving them constrained like the title’s roped reptile. Cast as castaways who end up in a run-down Mexican hotel in the off-season this star-strewn ensemble is fine, but it’s Derek McLane’s evocative set and Plummer’s performance which hit the emotional, psychic, and spiritual mark.

As I walked into the theater and the set of THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, I immediately wanted to be there on that veranda, curled up in that hammock with some tequila, looking out at the ocean under that purple sky (gorgeously lit by David Lander) awaiting the gathering storm about to drench the stage in silver and drain the heat from the air. Such “outside disturbances…are an almost welcome distraction from inside disturbances,” and this beauty of a set is the perfect backdrop for a collection of strange and lonely travelers who are, to greater and lesser degrees, disturbed.

The drama, directed by Michael Wilson, unfolds with the undulating rhythms of a tide rising and falling as these tourists try to find their footing in the middle of a tricky journey. Williams’s play is a meditation on what ails us, and there’s plenty to ponder beginning with the group’s tour guide, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon (Bill Heck) a disgraced Episcopalian priest on the verge of a breakdown whose sins include heresy, fornication, and the devil’s brew. Heck acts up a storm, but never conveys the depth or complexity of the anguish of this conflicted soul. I just didn’t buy it. In Shannon’s retinue is a ripe underage teen Charlotte Goodall (Susannah Perkins) whom Shannon has already deflowered much to the agitation of Charlotte’s over-protective guardian Judith Fellowes (Elizabeth Ashley).

Rolling in shortly behind them are other travelers, Hannah Jelkes a sweet spinster (Amanda Plummer) and her 97 year-old grandfather “Nonno” (James Earl Jones) in a wheel chair. She gets by sketching and painting, and he is hard at work on the the first poem he’s written in decades, and his last. They all arrive at the Costa Verde Hotel run by Maxine Faulk (Dana Delany), a newly widowed, but perpetually libidinous host who lusts after the Reverend; she has nursed him through at least one breakdown and recognizes the signs of another on the horizon.

The eminent James Earl Jones appears like the king of the jungle with a dashing grey mane and well-equipped to do what needs to be done here; that voice resonates from off stage until he emerges to deliver the climactic poem which “Nonno”  has spent the entire play composing behind closed doors. Most of the cast is merely adequate–Dana Delany is a tad too brittle and lacks the requisite languor and nurturant physical lusciousness this part demands. (Can’t imagine the arch Bette Davis here who originally played the part on B’way–must have been a relief when the earthier Shelley Winters replaced her.) Gravelly-voiced Ashley looks the part of a chaperone, and plays it like a bossy Girl Scout leader, but the source of her hyper-possessiveness re: her comely young charge doesn’t register.

The play hangs between two poles: intellectual order and physical chaos epitomized by the tribe of dark, sensual cabana boys who service the hotel–and the guests, and a troupe of blonde Nazi tourists who–in the year 1940– cut brazenly across the action like Hitler through Europe. All is redeemed by the divine Hannah ..”miss thin, standing-up, female Buddha” who sees through the Reverend’s comfortable crucifixion, his self-indulgent re-enactment of his dilemma: he’s caught between his primal urges, his need for human connection, his spiritual aspirations, and his disgust for his own earthly needs and those who fill them.

Plummer’s is by far the best performance here, and by any actress on a local stage this year. Her approach to the role is a miracle of delicacy and makes everything around it look fake. Equal parts sketch artist and con artist, Hannah’s artistry is her compassion. “Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it’s unkind, violent.” Plummer’s subtle and layered expression of these opposing forces, the balance she finds among innocence, worldly savvy, and other-worldly wisdom is mesmerizing. Her Hannah glows; we are drawn to her like the cleric searching for redemption, like a moth to a flame which illuminates THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA.  See it through March 18 at the American Repertory Theater!