Vieux Carré is one of Tennesse Williams lesser-known plays. It opened on Broadway on 30 April 1977, closed on 15 May and didn’t add to the playwright’s collection of Pulitzer Prizes for Drama (two) or New York Drama Critic’s Circle prizes for Best American Play (four). ITCH’s Midsumma production is already selling out houses and running longer than its premiere production, but it’s showing why it wasn’t a hit.
Set in the New Orleans French Quarter (Vieux Carré) in the late 30s, it’s an autobiographical work about a young gay writer who moves into a not-so-classy boarding house filled with Williams’s familiar broken characters who are mentally or physically ill, fragile, bullied or bullies, and desperately lonely.
The striking design, Alexandra Hiller (set) and John Dutton (lights), fills the spacious fortyfivedownstairs and readily evokes the steamy hot decay of the New Orleans from a Williams play. And, as director Alice Bishop recently went to the city in search of Tennesse’s ghost, it is perhaps as close as we can get to the French Quarter. (But anyone stuck on the side seats should at least get a couple of free drinks because their view is so obstructed.)
The writer at the centre of the play acts as narrator and writes about his interactions with his boarding house neighbours and landlady. By themselves, most of the multiple stories could stand by alone, but told together they don’t create a greater a whole, and it feels more like an exploration of character rather than a complex story. Which is all great, especially as the each performer brings something unique and watchable, but for all it’s beauty, atmosphere and good performances, there’s a mix of styles on the stage, which highlights the loose structure of the script by separating the stories and characters.
Vieux Carré isn’t one of Tennesse Williams’s well-known plays because it doesn’t compare to his great ones. It takes a lot to overcome a not-there script. ITCH have a lot of terrific people, so I’d really like to see this company and cast tackle one of his great ones, because this one isn’t showing how good they can be.