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by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Tennessee Williams. At: Rave Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: 1-773-338-2177;; $36. Runs through: June 28

Many authors have written autobiographical coming-of-age works, among them Ben Hecht ( with Gaily, Gaily ) and Neil Simon ( with his Biloxi Blues ). Vieux Carre is Tennessee Williams' ( 1911-1983 ) contribution. This late-career play ( 1977 ) failed on Broadway due, in part, to its episodic and rambling structure. True, it lacks dramatic cohesion but it offers thematic cohesion along with considerable charm and raucous humor as Williams looked back at himself with a mellow eye.

By 1977, Williams could use "fuck" on stage and—far more importantly—create openly gay characters treated with a degree of sympathy and dignity, such as the nameless young writer at the center of Vieux Carre. He's come to the French Quarter of 1930s New Orleans, as Williams actually did, staying at a barely respectable rooming house, having several self-defining gay experiences ( Williams had far more than he puts in the play ) and observing a cross-section of residents while learning life lessons.

The focus shifts between the writer ( Ty Olwin ) and a tubercular old gay painter, Nightingale ( Will Casey ); a young woman of means from New York, slumming with a local stud ( Eliza Stoughton, Joel Reitsma ); a Black housekeeper, Nursie ( Sandra Watson ); two impoverished old maids ( Kristin Collins, Debra Rodkin ); and a lonely but mean landlady, Mrs. Wire ( JoAnn Montemurro ), verging on dementia.

Under director Cody Estle, this perfectly lovely production of Vieux Carre plays to the rich comedy of Act I, the eccentric range of characters and the theme of constant yearning for connection—be it love or merely a momentary break from loneliness—found throughout Tennessee Williams' works. Estle has made solid casting choices and respects Williams' words and intent. His lively pacing avoids lugubrious passages, and emphasizes the work's kaleidoscopic nature. Unlike some young directors, Estle seems happy to interpret the text and not impose a dubious personal concept. I admire this in him, and it works quite well for Vieux Carre.

Sprawling across wide Raven stage, Ray Toler's set reveals a warren of bedrooms and connecting hallways. It's not rich in New Orleans details but more than sufficiently suggests the cramped and steamy rooming house confines. Alaina Moore's period costumes well-suit characters lacking the finances to be stylish.

I believe Vieux Carre fails not because of its rambling structure but because it's a comedy at heart which Williams pulls and twists into something heavier than it can support. The young woman has leukemia, for example, revealed deep in Act II for no particular dramatic reason. Williams last completed play, A House Not Meant to Stand, suffered similarly. As developed at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, the early one-act version was a comedy which Williams warped and stretched into a grotesque two-act tragedy. He didn't seem to understand that comedy on its own can serve serious purposes.

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