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Neglected treasure: Tennessee Williams via the Wooster Group

December 1, 2010 |  5:30 am

Vieux carre notebook 

“Vieux Carré,” Tennessee Williams’ 1977 memory play, is often unfairly lumped with the rest of the playwright's derided later works. Yet this literary coming-of-age story, set in a New Orleans boardinghouse in the late 1930s, has a haunting autumnal quality that awaits the right director— someone who can figure out how to balance the hysteria and the heartache, the grotesque comedy and the excruciating pathos. 
Could the Wooster Group’s director, Elizabeth LeCompte, be the unlikely answer to Williams’ prayers? The production, which begins Wednesday at REDCAT, is surely not going to offer a faithful rendering of “Vieux Carré.” But perhaps a radical rearrangement is what’s needed to reach the play’s poetic center.

One exchange from the play won’t leave my mind. Nightingale, a boardinghouse resident suffering from consumption, notices some discoloration in the eye of the protagonist, known simply as the Writer, and asks why he doesn’t get the problem treated. 

Writer: I plan to when I … if I … can ever afford to … the vision in that eye’s getting cloudy.

Nightingale: Don’t wait till you can afford to. Go straight away and don’t receive the bill.

Writer: I couldn’t do that.

Nightingale: Don’t be so honest in this dishonest world. (He pauses and coughs) ….

This last line could serve as an epigraph to Williams’ worldview. It perfectly expresses the playwright’s solidarity with outsiders, his compassion for what he called “the fugitive kind.”  The intimate trading of confidences between the two men suggests a furtive sexual bond. And the cough — a perfect Williams touch — hints at the way death voids society's punishing rules.
Personally, I’d trade 10 star-studded revivals of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for one first-rate “Vieux Carré.” To read my Calendar notebook on the play, click here.
-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

Photo: Ari Fliakos and Kate Valk in the Wooster Group's production of "Vieux Carré." Credit: Nancy Campbell