Chicago Theatre Review
The Kindness of Strangers
Vieux Carre – Raven Theatre
Of all Tennessee Williams’ plays, this may be his most autobiographical drama since “The Glass Menagerie.” Ironically, it’s probably his least-produced. Williams began writing this play in 1938, just after relocating to New Orleans from St. Louis, but he didn’t finish it in until 1977. On Broadway it proved unpopular, and played only five performances; Chicago’s few previous productions of the play have also been disappointing, as well. Expectations this time around were understandably low. However, this new production, sporting a sprawling, dilapidated boarding house scenic design by Ray Toler, filled with tiny rooms and dark passageways, with its atmospheric lighting by Greg Hofman and Garvin Jellison, is just about as perfect as it can get. Actually, Raven Theatre’s production is an unexpected surprise.
Cody Estle, continuing his terrific directorial work with Raven’s “Good Boys and True,” establishes the precise mood and tone for Williams’ haunting bio-drama. Estle, whose work becomes better with each production he undertakes, has a gift here for illuminating the playwright’s words while creating the necessary mood. There’s an almost ectoplasmic presence within the crumbling walls of the historic hostel. Estle has cast eleven splendid actors, all of whom demonstrate their understanding and expertise with Williams’ poetic dialogue. They comfortably reside amidst the melancholy atmosphere.
Ty Olwin, a welcome, recent addition to Chicago’s theatrical scene, follows up his excellent work in Steppenwolf’s “Lord of the Flies” with his finely-crafted portrayal of The Writer. As the young playwright, Mr. Olwin displays Williams’ vulnerability and innocence while hiding shame at his homosexual urges, even as they threaten to consume him. Struggling to find literary motivation while coping with poverty, alienation and a cataract, the actor journeys gradually from timid youngster to worldly observer of life.
Veteran actor Will Casey, so excellent in Citadel Theatre’s “Hospitality Suite,” demonstrates his versatility playing a very different character here with unbridled conviction. As Nightingale, an aging, gay, tuberculosis-riddled artist, Mr. Casey becomes a tragic, lonely, predatory man seeking companionship and beauty in a cruel world.
Eliza Stoughton is Jane, a young New York socialite desperately searching for a last chance at love and happiness within the peeling papered walls of the boarding house. Against Joel Reitsma’s Tye, a hunky, drug addicted, low-life vagrant, whose carnal appetite is unconfined, the actress skillfully plays a doomed woman whose future is already sealed. Together their fiercely played relationship suggests Blanche and Stanley from “A Streetcar Named Desire,” also set among the squalor of the Big Easy.
Joann Montemurro is jaw-dropping as the house’s bipolar landlady, Mrs. Wire. One moment accusing and railing against her tenants, the next confiding secrets to them, Ms. Montemmurro is a sadly frightening force of nature. As a lonely old lady she typifies everyone living within her walls. From the two elderly ladies whose poverty forces them to seek their meals from garbage piles, to a gay photographer with a penchant for sexual orgies, everyone in Vieux Carre both harbors secrets and an all-consuming loneliness.
One of Tennessee Williams‘ last plays, this drama is primarily a series of nearly unrelated vignettes rather than one continuous story. The building, which becomes a character itself, remains the one unifying element. With its scattered structure, Williams may have provided inspiration for other plays, such as Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore. However, Raven Theatre’s excellent, much-welcome production provides clues to what may have molded one of America’s greatest playwrights into an artistic genius.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 11-June 28 by Raven Theatre, 5157 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-338-2177 or by going to www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.