Just a few years prior to Tennessee Williams' death in 1983 at age 71, his autobiographical play "Vieux Carre" opened May 11, 1977 on Broadway, directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman at the St. James Theatre after 11 previews. It closed after five performances.
Neither audiences or critics knew what exactly to make of Williams' latest work, with famed critic Clive Barnes of The New York Times likening the characters to little more than "caricatures."
But as Williams knew so well, as we all do, often times, we are surrounded by larger-than-life personalities who fit the mold of caricatures.
"Vieux Carre," which is the name given to the French Quarter neighborhood of New Orleans where Williams lived as a young, hopeful writer, isn't a play staged very often.
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, has a production of "Vieux Carre," directed by Cody Estle, that is so well-told and brilliantly acted and conceived, I've already secured tickets to see it a second time before it finishes for the final weekend of performances on Saturday.
Lean and learned actor Ty Olwin, a fresh face to the Chicago stage since arriving last year, plays the Williams-based character simply referred to as "the writer," who has arrived in the Big Easy from St. Louis. He is staying at a crumbling, but likely once-splendid, boarding house operated by Mrs. Wire, a meddling, loud and pushy sort, so believably portrayed in true bulldog form by veteran actress Joann Montemurro, who never disappoints. (On Broadway, this role was played by legendary actress Sylvia Sydney, who died at age 88 in 1999). Helping with day-to-day duties at the boarding house is Mrs. Wire's cook and laundress, referred to as Nursie and beautifully played by Sandra Watson.
The array of odd and eccentric boarders at this rooming house provide the side stories, as they influenced Williams and inspired the characters in his writings. During the two and a half hour, one intermission play, seen only briefly is a photographer, played by Lane Flores, who rents the basement flat and is suspected of hosting wild orgies, which he defends as the invited subjects of his work shoots. Also only emerging every so often are a pair of reclusive ladies, Mary Maude, played by Kristin Collins and Miss Carrie, played by Debra Rodkin, who not only cannot afford their rent, they are starving for lack of food.
Most of the storyline is devoted to the "bookend" boarders whose rooms are next door to the writer. Jane, played with passion and resolve by actress Eliza Stoughton, is a New York ingenue who has forsaken her innocence to find new inspiration with new surroundings while hopelessly under the spell of Tye, a powerful performance by actor Joel Reitsma, a local brute who lives off her means. The room which adjoins the writer's space is occupied by a painter dubbed Nightingale, played picture perfect by actor Will Casey, who pines for his young neighbor behind the wall, while trying to hide his own weaknesses and insecurities. Late in the story, hope arrives under this shared roof when a young musician named Sky, nicely played by Christopher Borek, arrives with charm and promises for his new acquaintance, the writer.
This collection of curiosities housed at 722 Toulouse St., as imagined with an amazing set design by Ray Toler, props by Mary O'Dowd and costume parade by Alaina Moore, provide lessons we can all learn from. Williams certainly did.
Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $15 to $36 at raventheatre.com or (773) 338-2177.