If “Vieux Carré” were any less cheerful, it would make “A Streetcar Named Desire” look like it was produced by the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. But if the Crescent City that Tennessee Williams experienced was only half so gritty, there’s no wonder it left such a deep impression on him.
Written late in his life, Williams’ “Vieux Carré” is somewhat autobiographical and depicts a writer struggling to make his way in the 1930s, living in a French Quarter rooming house among other strugglers and those who have all but given up the fight. A play so dark — especially in the second act — needs performers who can cast a shadow of their own.
Fortunately, the Swine Palace production has several.
Glenn Aucoin stars as the young, aspiring writer whose inability to get publishers to buy his work has him destitute, but that is not his only battle. He is coming to grips with being gay. Aucoin depicts the writer’s insecurity and vulnerability — and later his growing strength — well.
Surrounding the writer is a menagerie of dysfunction. Nightingale (played superbly by John Fletcher) bunks on the other side of the plywood wall from the writer. He is at the other end of the comfort scale in terms of his homosexuality, and Fletcher lets the audience wonder if his overtures of friendship have an agenda.
Other boarders include Jane (Caitlin Morrison), whose life went off the rails when she fell in lust with a bullying lout, Tye (Joshua Stenvick), and invited him to live with her; and two aging, eccentric spinsters, Miss Carrie (Nancy Litton) and Miss Mary Maude (Bacot Wright), who provide a lot of the first act’s comic relief. Litton has been in a lot of local productions; this was the best I’ve seen her.
All of the boarders live in some measure of fear or loathing of the landlady, Mrs. Wire (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis). She is gruff and runs her home with an iron fist, though there is a tender heart beneath that crusty exterior. McMurdo-Wallis does a superb job with this complex character.
Stephen Cramer moves on and off the stage, narrating the play’s transitions from the perspective of the writer, now older, looking back on these days. Lance Rasmussen portrays Sky, a clarinetist who holds out the possibility that the writer might escape this depressing place and start anew. Fola Afolayan adds lighter moments as the maid, Nursie.
At least as important as the actors are singer Marie Flowers and pianist Marcus Haney, who provide jazz and blues musical interludes and get the crowd warmed up 10 minutes before the play begins.
George Judy directs the two-act play, which is 15 minutes short of three hours. Scenic director Kenneth Ellis deserves a bow for a stage that has a half-dozen levels, showing five rooms and a courtyard without requiring any set changes.
The language is R-rated, the sexual situations, though hard-edged, are handled tastefully.