… streetcar named memory …

The setting is a run-down boarding house in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1930’s and you know you’re in good hands from the first moment.  The house is empty now, The Writer comments at the start, remembering when he lived there, but clearly it isn’t — Mrs. Wire, the landlady is on stage even before the play begins.  With that brilliant contradiction, Williams conveys the paradox of memory.

The Writer, turning his memories into a play, brings us with him to the time this house was crowded with the intensely individualized characters and their desires, jam packed with the ongoing torments of their situations and the occasional raptures open to them through their partnership in the human spirit.

It’s interesting that The Writer is both the central character in the play and also the most passive.  Though young and beautiful, he doesn’t seduce but is seduced, by an elderly and not appealing painter — the man has serious lung disease — who in a sparkling moment of truth defines himself as “rapacious.”  Appetite never dies — the painter reminded me of Goya’s black painting of “Old Man and Old Woman Eating Soup,” skeletons scraping their bowls to the end.  All the other tenants in Mrs. Wire’s rooming house are ravenous, in one way or another.  The handsome Tye is sexually passionate, stimulating Jane’s unquenchable desire.  Two once higher class old ladies are famished to the point of scrounging in garbage cans, while Mrs. Wire cooks gumbo.

Even toward the end when The Writer has the chance to move to a new freedom, a cross-country car trip to the West, he’s invited along but it’s the other guy’s plan.  The Writer’s action is mainly to observe and understand things better.  This gives the play a soft center.

Vieux Carre was written in 1978 near the end of Williams’ career but written about writing and about coming to terms with sexuality, it has the feel of a coming of age play.  He often draws upon memories of his life and family in his plays but this is the most directly autobiographical — Mrs. Wire’s has the same address as his French Quarter boarding house — 722 Toulouse.  It even has a structural laxity one might expect of a youthful playwright with more to learn.  Perhaps, after having produced a great body of work, Williams felt he’d earned the right to just give himself over to autobiography — at last.  Never mind:  the production is flawless, the acting superb, the language goes directly to the heart and the characters are real, vivid, and remain in the imagination.

Vieux Carre is at the Pearl Theater in the East Village, St Mark’s Place, through June 14th.

P.S. Two of the best plays I’ve seen this year are Vieux Carre, and Ten Blocks on the Camino Real, reviewed here.  And more to come — I’m looking forward to Glass Menagerie at Guild House in East Hampton, L.I., this summer (reviewed — click here). Also reviewed here, Williams’ The Day on Which a Man Dies in East Hampton, August 2009.