Tennessee Williams’s play, Night of the Iguana, is the story of a defrocked Episcopal minister, the Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, who after leaving the ministry, takes up giving bus tours through Mexico. On a trip he is leading with women teachers from a Baptist college in Texas, Shannon becomes romantically entangled with the 17-year-old niece of the matriarch of the group. Though Shannon is innocent of the charges she lodges against him, the stern matriarch decides to ruin Shannon’s career as a tour guide and in the process uncovers his past. Shannon begins to fall apart and has a nervous breakdown which leads him to heavy drinking. In order to save his job as a tour guide, he shanghais the bus and takes the ladies to a remote hotel on the coast of Mexico near Puerto Vallarta. It is there in the midst of his despair that he meets Hannah Jelkes, an attractive itinerant painter, who has resigned herself to singleness for the rest of her life in order to care for her aging grandfather.
It is Hannah who begins to nurse Shannon back into shape giving him spiritual counsel and caring for him as no one has before. The real breakthrough comes one evening after dinner when Shannon and Hannah find themselves alone on the veranda, and Hannah removes a crumpled pack of cigarettes from her pocket. She discovers only two left in the pack and decides to save them for later and returns the pack to her pocket.
SHANNON: May I have one of your cigarettes, Miss Jelkes? [She offers him the pack. He takes it from her and crumples it and throws it off the veranda.] Never smoke those. They’re made out of tobacco from cigarette stubs that beggars pick up off sidewalks and out of gutters in Mexico City. [He produces a tin of English cigarettes.] Have these−Benson and Hedges, imported, in an airtight tin, my luxury in my life.
HANNAH: Why−thank you. I will, since you have thrown mine away.
SHANNON: I’m going to tell you something about yourself. You are a lady, a real one and a great one.
HANNAH: What have I done to merit that compliment from you?
SHANNON: It isn’t a compliment. It’s just a report on what I’ve noticed about you at a time when it’s hard for me to notice anything outside myself. You took out those Mexican cigarettes, you found you just had two left, you can’t afford to buy a new pack of even that cheap brand, so you put them away for later. Right?
HANNAH: Mercilessly accurate, Mr. Shannon.
SHANNON: But when I asked you for one, you offered it to me without a sign of reluctance.
HANNAH: Aren’t you making a big point out of a small matter?
SHANNON: Just the opposite, honey. I’m making a small point out of a very large matter.
In a very, very small way, this scene is reflective of the one-way love of God, the grace that we see Jesus living out on Good Friday and Easter. And it is, in fact, “a very large matter.”
This is the love that is able to transform our lives, and in Night of the Iguana, it is the breakthrough for the Rev. Dr. Shannon. Of course, in the world such love will always be imperfect. We all want to be loved the way Hannah Jelkes loves Shannon, but it still does not bring satisfaction. Shannon still wants it, Tennessee Williams wants it, and we want it. We want a love that is unequivocal, a love that is unwavering in the midst of our own constant inconsistency.