Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
What a courageous undertaking by director Brandt Reiter and the 10-member cast at the Know Theatre this month – a production of Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre, which opened Friday (June 14).
Started by Williams as a youth of 27 and only finished and produced on Broadway 40 years later, after he’d joined the first tier of noted American playwrights, Vieux Carre is not known to be his best play. In fact, it closed after only five performances.
“Is it a good play?” asked New York Times critic Clive Barnes in his 1977 review. “Probably not … yet it has a haunting nature — you leave the theater with the impression of having been told a secret. Not necessarily a truth, but a secret. … It is unquestionably the murmurings of genius, not a major statement.”
I found it a fascinating play because it contains the templates of all the characters Williams would include in The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar named Desire and other works that earned him the reputation as the American Shakespeare.
The highly autobiographical work is set in a dilapidated boarding house at 722 Toulouse Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Vieux Carre, or French Quarter, was home to a young Tennessee Williams. At that time, the downtrodden district was a haven for bohemians, immigrants, entertainers, outcasts, con men, musicians and artists. The play centers around a nameless, aspiring St. Louis writer who struggles with poverty, loneliness, homosexuality and, if that isn’t enough, a cataract, while learning to “navigate the desperate world around him but also feed off it, as any true artist must,” according to Reiter.
Set in the winter of 1938 and spring of 1939, the play chronicles the growth of “The Writer” (played by talented BU junior theater major Tyler Downey) from naïve boyhood to savvy manhood. Along the way, he gradually becomes involves with the other denizens of the boarding house, who are all, to put it kindly, a few cards short of a full deck and decidedly down on their luck.
There’s Mrs. Wire (Angelyn Redstone), his paranoid and manipulative landlady; Nightingale (Know artistic director Tim Gleason), a dying, tuberculosis-ridden neighbor who seduces the young writer; Jane (Jaclyn Rene Tokos), a society girl dying of some unnamed blood cancer; her bouncer-in-a strip-club bum of a boyfriend Tye (Zac Chastain), and two elderly, eccentric and starving formerly genteel ladies, Mary Maud (Carolyn-Christy Boyden) and Miss Carrie (Patricia Donohue). Smaller roles are played by Erik Young as the photographer who lives in the basement and hosts orgies, and Sky (Brian Nayor), who offers The Writer an ultimate escape to the West Coast. And don’t forget the tuneful Nursie (she has a really nice singing voice), played by Qiana Watson, whose insightful comments provide a rare voice of sanity in the play.
The character portrayals by everyone in the cast are masterful and strong, with no weak links. Mrs. Wire tends to have one level and one emotion – shrill and delusional – but you really listen in the rare moment she quiets down and movingly explains what pushed her over the edge.
It isn’t all tragedy – there are injections of black comedy in the play. For example, the whole household is ushered into a paddy wagon and dragged into court when Mrs. Wire stops an orgy in her basement by pouring water on the participants through holes in her kitchen floor. There’s plenty of sardonic dialogue.
A bit of constructive criticism: Some of the characters’ monologues and dialogues in soft Southern accents, especially those delivered early in the play by Tim Gleason, did not project into the audience. A bit more volume, please. Or a simpler solution, lower the noise level of the rain and thunder soundtrack that runs throughout much of the play.
The Know Theatre’s first night tradition includes a treat – Friday, it was jambalaya, beignets and a potent mixture of cognac and bourbon. What a welcome array of New Orleans comfort food after such an intense evening.
Opening night played to a full house, in a newly-cleaned theater, with improved stage lighting and air conditioning in the repurposed firehouse at 72 Carroll St., Binghamton. The show continues at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sunday through June 30. There’s a “pay what you can” night next Thursday (June 20).
“If you liked this play, tell others. Tell them we’re downtown, and we’re here on purpose,” said Gleason.