Hard to believe it took the Pearl, the very model of a responsible classical repertory company, 25 years to do a Tennessee Williams play. Tardy though it may be, this staging of “Vieux Carre” — produced in 1977 and rarely seen since — is a well-chosen example of how an enterprising rep house can serve a bit of nouvelle cuisine to faithful subscribers nourished on Shakespeare and Shaw. By salting the resident company with guest thesps from other venues, visiting director Austin Pendleton also provides a piquant taste of the interactive dynamic in this most theatrical of theater towns.
The only serious drawback in Pendleton’s otherwise rewarding production — and a rather shocking one for a play set in the ever-romantic, if perpetually dying, city of New Orleans — is the design team’s failure to establish a vivid sense of place for this lyrical memory piece.
While the cramped playing areas and dingy furniture pieces identify the decrepit rooming house at 722 Toulouse St. that the young Williams briefly inhabited in 1939, the physical set and surrounding soundscape give no hint of the tarnished beauty of the city outside.
We get a sharper sense of where we are from Barbara A. Bell’s costumes, well-shopped ensembles that build on a young man’s flashy shoes or an old woman’s prim dress collar to establish person and period. But it’s pretty much up to the actors to transmit the peculiar allure New Orleans must have held for a young man embarking on the journey of self-discovery that would establish his identity as a homosexual and a writer.
“Here surely is the place that I was made for, if any place on this funny old world,” Williams once noted of the French Quarter, with its laissez-faire culture, so tolerant of artists and other misfits. Years later, it was the place where he chose to return, reborn as the Writer in this play.
With his smooth skin and clear eyes, Sean McNall looks like the kind of pretty youth who would have fluttered hearts in the ’30s. But this company pro goes deeper into the character, finding the dispassionate eye and touch of cruelty a writer needs to develop if he means business. So, while the lad becomes a participant in the multiple dramas that make up boarding house life, McNall addresses him primarily as observer-in-training. And as we can tell from the faintly mocking grin at the corner of his mouth, this young man will survive his youthful escapades, storing them away for future use.
But first he has to survive the attentions of his landlady, Mrs. Wire. In Carol Schultz’s fire-breathing perf, this dragon constantly rages at the boarders whose lives she can neither share nor control. “I don’t allow no trashy behavior in this house” is the moralistic excuse for her incessant snooping. In fact, she’s crazed with loneliness, a condition understood only by Nursie, in Claudia Robinson’s wonderfully earthy perf a woman too experienced at life to let it make her crazy.
This condition of loneliness permeates the entire household, and under Pendleton’s sensitive helming, each member of the ensemble finds a distinctive way to convey the feeling without drowning in it.
“I am frantic with loneliness,” says Jane, a socially conflicted New York transplant. In a neatly balanced turn from Pearl regular Rachel Botchan, Jane is a smart lady on a stupid mission, doing her best to shake off a lifetime of good breeding and education by installing a brute of a man named Tye (Joseph Collins) in her bed — and wondering why that makes her unhappy.
Williams adds to his gallery of fragile Southern ladies with Mary Maude and Miss Carrie (in delicate character studies by Beth Dixon and Pamela Payton-Wright, respectively), two genteel but destitute boarders who deny their desperation by reliving yesterday and hiding from tomorrow.
Observing all these characters clinging to their pathetic hopes and dreams, the Writer (McNall) may be green, but he is not immune to the household curse.
“I know the sound of loneliness,” says Nightingale (George Morfogen), the consumptive portrait painter who seduces the sensitive young man with a little kindness and a good bit of knowledge about sensitive young men. In his subtle way Morfogen transforms Nightingale from a conventionally sad old queen into a kind of visionary: the playwright himself, grown old and mortal.
“You used to be kind, gentle,” the dying artist admonishes the Writer, accusing him of having “a cold in the heart” — the cruel but not unnatural condition of a writer learning to look at suffering human beings as material.