Vieux Carre By Lennessee Williams Directed by Kevin Jennings At the Loeb Mainstage, November 13
IT'S NOT THEIR subjects that make Tennesee Williams's plays unique. The obvious and oblique references to homosexuality, or the peculiar view of the South that can be both proud and self-deprecating are both taken up by other playwrights. And Williams can't lay sole claim to heavy-handedly spelling out the message for the audience, either.
The operative difference, of course, is that Williams achieves a special power by combining all three, melding them into something more than the sum of the parts. The current production of Vieux Carre at the Mainstage takes advantage of this curious union, and its presentation closely mirrors both the strengths and weaknesses of one of Williams' last plays.
At his lyric best, Williams gave us the powerful tension and drama of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). In Vieux Carre, written more than 20 years later, it has become more difficult for the author to rise above melodrama. And while we've certainly come to expect the simplistic repetition of the themes, there still is a limit to how much we can stomach of lines like, "People die of loneliness ...loneliness is so thick in this house, you can feel it,' and "There's no defense against the truth."
DESPITE ITS FLAWS, there are still good reasons for presenting Vieux Carre, with its message of depression: desperation--and perhaps hope somewhere surviving. When well done, it can be an enticing, thought-provoking evening of theatre, and this production largely succeeds. Director Kevin Jennings has taken advantage of the ample resources of the Loeb, assembled a strong cast and imaginatively recreated the squalid, decaying world of New Orleans' Old Quarter--at least through the first act.
What is immediately striking and highly effective is the set, simple in appearance but truly complex. Jennings and designer Albert Webster deserve plaudits for the sheer cleverness of the entire three-level set rising from under a bare white cover, suggesting a reborn Phoenix rising from the embers of the protagonist's imagination. Less successful, however, are the rather eerie and harsh sounding original score and the flashing colored lights in the background, tending to be more an annoying distraction than a subtle evocation of mood.
Jennifer Burton and Peter Howard stand out with consistently solid performances as the landlady and her homosexual tuberculoid tenant. As Mrs. Wire, Burton masterfully shows the despair of a woman losing much of what she once had, including her sanity. Howard's despair, though, is that of someone striving for what he can' never have. Howard brings a strong sense of understanding and sympathy which elicits more than just the typical--and perhaps automatic--pity.
Brigit Fasolino (Janc) gives a powerful performance at times, but fails to sustain it throgh the second act. As Jane moves along the emotional register through anger to bitterness to frustrated resignation, she seems to go too easily, too quickly, with a lack of feeling that confuses us. In some sense, the performance still works because the character herself is confused--but overall it doesn't come off as naturally as it should. Fasolino does manage a certain sardonic spunky style that carries her strongly in the beginning, but as this falls apart too effortlessly, so too does her portrait of personal despair.
Finally, Jon Tolins (The Writer) and James Houghton (Tye) never really come to terms with their own roles, perhaps in part because of the weakness and limited range of their characters. This seems especially true for Houghton, who might be expected to be better given the success of an earlier attempt at Williams, performing Brick in last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, the part of the usually barechested Tye, while allowing ample opportunity for literal stretching of the muscles, seems to leave little room for more figurative artistic flexing.
Overall, it works, giving us a rather depressing crew of people, each wrapped up in his own problems and personal crises, each suffering from his own particular brand of loneliness. The tragedy of them all living in a house with paper-thin walls and yet still so lonely and so insulated, is something that Jennings lifts out of the melodrama, bringing it up to Williams at his best. As Williams's stage alter-ego, the Writer chronicles it all for us, commenting to his landlady, "I've learned so much here ... I should be paying you tuition!"