In a single play written near the end of his career, Tennessee Williams gave his audiences the life and characters that inspired his life’s work.
Sadly, not many audiences saw “Vieux Carre,” as poor reviews closed it after only a few performances.
Swine Palace will look at the drama through fresh eyes when it opens “Vieux Carre” on Thursday in the Reilly Theatre.
“It wasn’t like his earlier plays, which may be one reason it wasn’t successful,” says George Judy, the theater company’s artistic director. “But it was his chance to ask, ‘How did I get to this place from where I began?’ It’s about beginnings and endings and turning the dark into something positive. It’s a significant work, and it’s special, and it’s our time to do it.”
The autobiographical story is set in 1938 in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The main character is an aspiring writer living in a boardinghouse filled with quirky characters, his life recounted through the eyes of an older version of himself.
“I play the narrator, who is the writer at the end of his career,” says Stephen Cramer. “As the narrator, I already know how the story turns out, but I’m still surprised by some things, because I don’t quite remember it happening the way it happens in the story.”
Williams began writing “Vieux Carre” shortly after moving to New Orleans in 1938, but didn’t finish it until about 40 years later, along the way incorporating some of the characters in many of his classic works.
In “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the upstairs neighbor who pours boiling water through the floorboards to break up a poker game was inspired by the owner of the boarding house at 722 Toulouse St., where Williams roomed.
“But Mrs. Wire, who owns the boarding house, is actually pouring boiling water through the floorboards to break up something else,” says Cristine McMurdo-Wallis, who plays the character. “This is her house, and it’s her world, and she’s going to be the best in running her world.”
Other tenants include a gay painter named Nightingale, who is dying from tuberculosis but won’t admit it; Jane, a New Rochelle society girl dying of leukemia; Tye, a drug-addicted bouncer who works in a strip club; the eccentric and elderly Mary Maud and Miss Carrie; and a gay photographer.
The play was produced in 1977, when Williams, who was gay, could unveil the homosexuality of some of his characters.
Before then, the subject had been relegated to ambiguous subtext in such plays as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
“This was a time in his life where he could be more accepting of himself, and audiences could be more accepting of it in his characters on stage,” says Glenn Aucoin, who plays the younger character. “The writer is 28 years old, and the narrator is at that place where he’s reliving this life.”
Because Aucoin and Cramer are playing the same character at different stages of his life, they collaborated on their mannerisms and accents.
“Glenn and I came up with a speech pattern that’s similar,” Cramer says. “As an actor, this part has been fascinating, because not only do I know everything, I’m the moderator between the play and the audience. There are so many funny moments, but there are also some moments that are painful.”
“There’s a lot that’s unknown to my character,” Aucoin says. “He’s young, and he’s not yet established himself as a writer, but he eventually finds an opportunity and takes it to live the life that he’s lived.”
But could he have lived that life had he not spent time at 722 Toulouse St.?
“You certainly see elements of all of these characters in his plays — it’s haunted by archetypes of Tennessee Williams,” says John Fletcher, who plays Nightingale. “My character is an older gay man who is mourning the loss of his youth. You can see Nightingale in Blanche DuBois in ‘Streetcar.’ But Nightingale is also a sort of force of sexuality. Tennessee Williams could write it this way, because this was a time when he could be who he’d always been.”
And as this story unfolds, the writer doesn’t realize that these people will be the inspiration for his career.
“But he somehow has to turn his life around, and his characters fulfill his destiny,” Fletcher says. “He does that through writing.”
“Vieux Carre,” which opened on Broadway in 1977, closed after five performances. The play has been sporadically performed since but remains elusive.
“When I was in graduate school, I went to New York, and I saw ‘Vieux Carre’ in previews,” says Judy. “Tennessee Williams was sitting in the audience still working on rewrites, and I am still haunted by the thought of how he was watching this autobiographical play and seeing his writing not do what he wanted it to do.”
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