Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vieux Carre

Photo: Gregory Costanzo

Tennessee Williams wrote Vieux Carre both early and late in his career. He started it in the late 30s and went back to it in the late 70s. Based on his time spent in a rundown boarding house in New Orleans, Vieux Carre can be viewed as a sort of The Glass Menagerie 2: What Happened After Tom Left St. Louis. In many ways, it is vintage Williams: full of aching loneliness, emotional scars, and the hope/prayer that connecting with another person--particularly sexually--can heal both psychological and physical damage. The Williams stand in--known as the Writer--is young, yearning, and not quite in touch with his homosexuality. He has left his family behind and wants no new parents; his life is his now, however it may turn out. At the boarding house, he gets to know a variety of fragile people: an artist with TB, an upper class woman who both loves and hates her lower class boyfriend, a pair of elderly women slowly starving to death, and a landlady whose nastiness and neediness have blended into one large mass of jagged emotion. In some ways more a series of character studies than a plotted play, Vieux Carre is a clear-eyed yet loving look at the people who fall into life's cracks. The reliable Pearl Theatre is offering an excellent, if flawed, production of the play, directed by Austin Pendleton. The idea of having one bed stand in for everyone's bed is awkward and confusing, and the use of the aisles of the theatre for exits and entrances is jarring. But the performances are excellent; Sean McNall, Rachel Botchan, Carol Schultz, and George Morfogen are particularly moving. Two other points: (1) It's a pity that the play was written in a time when Williams could thoughtlessly give an actual story to everyone except the "Negro maid," who ends up being more of a prop than a person (although Claudia Robinson gives the character dimension through the excellence of her performance); and (2) a number of reviews have referred to the artist, an older man who seduces the Writer, as "predatory" and even "aggressively homosexual." I think that these are misreadings of the character, who is a gentle man who wants desperately to connect with another person and who is offering the Writer all he has to offer. The Writer is an adult, able to say no, and while he accepts the artist's overtures ambivalently, he does accept them and perhaps is the better for it.

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