Raven Theatre. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Cody Estle. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Dan Jakes
"Writers are shameless spies," claims the Tennessee Williams stand-in at the center of his autobiographical drama about the faded lives of the tenants at a French Quarter boarding house, which isn't altogether true. In soliloquy, the unnamed Writer tells us throughout how the guilt-ridden, hopeless ghosts that once haunted the hallways of 722 Toulouse St. still knock around in his mind. Shame and pity, it seems, are the very essence of it.
Williams's entire canon is full of spinsters, emotional refugees and victims of an indifferent world around them, but with Vieux Carré, there's an especially poignant sense of authenticity, and Cody Estle capitalizes on it in this beautifully rendered production for Raven Theatre. Though it wasn't staged until 1977, Williams began writing the memory play as a young man; there's an eeriness in the fact that over a 40-year gestation period, the reflections he had in the end on his youth were of the same themes that tortured his characters for most of the 20th century, and it isn't lost here. As the Writer, Ty Olwin conveys a wisdom and dread beyond his years that out matures his bitter, dementia-stricken landlord (JoAnn Montemurro), and the many residents she micromanages, including a Stanley-type drunkard (Joel Reitsma) and the self-loathing unwed illustrator who acts as his wife and ward (Eliza Stoughton), an aging, ill homosexual Nightingale (Will Casey), and various tragic characters who meander in and out.
It's a remarkable ensemble effort throughout, but in the relationship between the Writer and Nightingale, Estle really touches on something special. Pitiful and almost predatory, Casey acts as an opening to a world the young writer knows he's a part of but keeps at a personal distance. It's a curious thing to see a young man look at his future with equal parts skepticism and empathy, and Olwin and Casey capture the strange dynamic perfectly.
Set designer Roy Toler and lighting designers Greg Hofmann and Garvin Jellison provide a perfectly dilapidated, fully realized attic-level playing space that doesn't just capture the era, but complements Williams's messy, dream-like memory structure. There's a collage energy throughout, as if the Writer is trying to piece it all together. The fact that he can't is the most haunting, intriguing, true-to-love aspect. It can be argued whether or not Vieux Carré ranks among the stronger of Williams' later work—if there's a case to be made, it's this production.