Memories light the corners of Tennessee Williams’ mind in Vieux Carré, the Great American Playwright’s reminiscences of time spent in New Orleans’ French Quarter, revived to vibrant, excitingly theatrical life by Coeurage Theatre Company under Jeremy Lelliott’s inspired direction.
Begun in 1938, the same year the then 27-year-old aspiring playwright traveled from St. Louis to “Voo Ca-ray” with dreams of future greatness, Vieux Carré provides a fascinating glimpse into a young artist’s life in a strange new land.
The eccentrics populating Vieux Carré include the increasingly desperate landlady Mrs. Wire (Melinda deKay), frantic with a half-dozen or so boarders barely able to afford a meal, let alone pay the rooming house’s measly rent; Jane (Sammi Smith), a prim-and-proper New Yorker leaving caution to the wind with Tye (Shaun Taylor-Corbett), a crude but sexy (and sexually ambiguous) strip-show barker; Mary Maude and Miss Carrie (Carryl Lynn and Sandy Manson), a pair of eccentric old biddies scrounging for scraps in the local trash bins; and—perhaps most significantly to the playwright—Nightingale (Dieterich Gray), a flamboyant, sex-obsessed gay painter whose hacking cough can no longer be chalked up to a simple case of the flu.
Completing Vieux Carré’s colorful cast of characters are Nursie (Leontine Guilliard), Mrs. Wire’s African-American boarding house servant/caregiver; jazz clarinetist Sky (Jonathan Kells Phillips), a fresh-from-Tampa “fugitive from legal wedlock”; a Pickup (Graham Kurtz) whom Nightingale hopes to intice up to his room; and a Photographer (Tony Brown) whose nude male modeling sessions provoke a boiling hot retaliation from an outraged Mrs. Wire.
Unlike Williams’ better known works, 1978’s Vieux Carré (which it took the playwright four decades to complete) substitutes assorted vignettes for a single cohesive storyline, perhaps one reason why revivals are few and far between, that and enough overt gay content (references to “screaming old faggots,” “predatory transvestites,” blowjobs, one-night stands, and basement orgies) to scare away a risk-averse theater.
Fortunately, director Lelliott’s company isn’t called Coeurage for nothing, and its latest offering proves one of its most thrillingly staged, from an opening sequence whose ghostlike figures situate us smack-dab in memory-play territory, to the radio-play style live “Foley” sound effects that give the production more than a hint of magic realism, to its eleven all-around splendid performances.
The boyishly charismatic Lee does subtly grounded work as The Writer, around whom the rest of the cast play it appropriately big while remaining rooted in reality.
Smith’s hopelessly plucky Jane, Guilliard’s bold and sassy Nursie, Lynn’s and Manson’s dithery spinsters, and Phillips’ handsome, effortless masculine Sky are all terrific, with Kurtz and Brown adding their own brief but memorable cameos, the latter three performers providing the production’s breathtaking Foley effects (doors opening and closing, water pouring, matches lighting, dishes breaking, and countless more) in only partially obstructed view.
Best of all are the three actors gifted with Vieux Carré’s most colorful roles—a divinely theatrical Gray as the consumptive painter who could easily have served as a model for Blanche DuBois; a masterful DeKay digging deep into an aging woman losing control of her life and mind; and the dangerously sexy Taylor-Corbett, proving himself as adept at drama as at Jersey Boys high notes.
Scenic designer JR Bruce and lighting designer Brandon Baruch join forces exquisitely to enhance the dreamlike atmosphere that permeates Vieux Carré, with Bourbon Street jazz (courtesy of recorded sound designer James Ferrero) adding to the New Orleans feel. Magdalena Guillen’s period costumes and Charles Britton’s props are pitch-perfect as well.
Needless to say, Jeff Gardner’s Foley design is in a class by itself, with TJ Marchbank’s fight choreography and Donna Eshelman’s movement coaching and choreography completing director Lelliott’s overall vision to perfection.
Malika Williams is assistant director and dramaturg. Megan Laughlin is production stage manager. Estrella Fernandez is costume assistant. Alternates Britton, Candice Hammer, Zach Kanner, John Klopping, Noel Olken, Roses Pritchard, Toni Trenton are poised to step onstage when needed.
Though Vieux Carré may never make anyone’s Best Of Tennessee list, even lesser Williams is worth a look-see. As staged by Coeurage Theatre Company, it makes for a must-see.
The Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood.
March 3, 2016
Photos: Nardeep Khurmi