Vieux Carré Bares Its Soul at Chicago’s Raven Theatre

Vieux Carré Bares Its Soul at Chicago’s Raven Theatre

In 1938, when Tennessee Williams began writing Vieux Carré, the 27-year-old was a very different man than he was in 1977, when the play came full circle–hitting the Broadway stage only to crashland after five performances.

One wonders, if the play had been completed earlier and mounted in the 1940’s or 50’s when Williams was the toast of Broadway with A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Orpheus Descending, and Sweet Bird of Youth what the reaction could have been.

The autobiographical story about a young writer (Williams) who leaves his home in St. Louis to move to a ramshackle New Orleans rooming house in the French Quarter back in 1938 has all the elements for good drama.  The ragtag assortment of characters along with their anxieties and longings are just as timely today as they were in 1977–and more accepted by society.

No longer are we shocked by their hang-ups–drugs, race, homosexuality, prostitution and mental illness–as they are now better understood and accepted.  That leaves us less open to judgment and more open to understanding the underlying currents of loneliness, desperation and the ravages of time that the play is examining.

Raven Theatre’s remount of Vieux Carré  which opened last week and runs through June 28 is a carefully crafted production under the artful direction of Cody Estle. Estle says the play has a strong personal resonance for him reminding him of his early years in Chicago.

The non-equity cast is made up of some of the best local talent along with some very talented new faces. Ty Olwin, “The Writer” is a young actor, relatively new to Chicago, who recently starred as Jack in Steppenwolf’s Lord of the Flies. Olwin has just the right amount of innocence and vulnerability mixed with drive to make him a believable young Williams.

Most Chicago theatre-goers will be familiar with Nightingale (Will Casey)–the gay painter who is facing his own mortality but afraid to give into it.  Casey, among other Chicago roles, was the taxi driver in Famous Door’s production of Hellcab for more than 300 performances.

The attractive and explosive lovers, rich society girl Jane (Eliza Stoughton), and bad boy strip club bouncer Tye (Joel Reitsma)–reminiscent of Streetcar’s Stanley and Stella–are polar opposites–each with their own underlying struggles.  The sweet maiden ladies, played by Debra Rodkin and Kristin Collins, who were so poor they were forced to eat garbage, brought a sadder quieter note to the party.

The glue that holds the show together is the seemingly evil landlady, Mrs. Wire (JoAnn Montemurro), who herself is becoming unglued–and taking it out on all in the rooming house–especially her loveable housekeeper and caretaker Nursie (wonderfully portrayed by Sandra Watson).

The Raven stage is just the right size to handle all the areas of the rooming house–allowing the audience to eavesdrop on the private moments in the residents’ rooms.

Ray Toler’s magnificently designed set reflects the darkness and decay of the rooming house–paralleling the darkness and decay of the characters.

Vieux Carré, unquestionably an autobiographical examination of Williams’ early life, was called “one of the two ‘critical bookends’ (the other being The Glass Menagerie) to Williams’ career” by The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes in his review of the 1977 production.

Although Vieux Carré, remains to this day one of Williams’ lesser known and less successful works—that is, if you count success by the number of productions and the length of its runs–the play should not be dismissed.

Perhaps what Williams says here is not earth shattering, but, nonetheless, it is important. One should see the show, if not for any other reason than what Barnes so aptly concluded in his 1977 review,  “It is unquestionably, the murmurings of genius, not a major statement. Yet beneath those murmurings, through the meanderings, is an authentic voice of the 20th-century theater.”

Raven’s revival does it just right and is definitely worth revisiting or seeing it for the first time

Through June 28, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.; $36 at 773-338-2177 or online.

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