Vieux Carre

November 4, 1999


By Richard Christiansen
Tribune Chief Critic

One of the season's truly singular producions is playing to sold out houses (of 20 people per performance) in the North Lakeside Cultural Center at 6219 N. Sheridan Rd.

The play is Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carre, first produced in 1977 and just now receiving its Chicago premiere.

This semi-autobiographical drama is not one of Williams' major works, being mostly composed of snippets of scenes and characters that he had explored in earlier pieces. But in this compact production presented by the enterprising Equity Library Theatre as part of its "Greatest American Playwrights of the 20th Century" series, the cast is excellent and the setting is unique.

Equity Library Theatre had originally planned to produce the play in a North Side off-Loop theater, but when that fell through, the production was forced to move to the North Lakeside Cultural Center. This necessity led to a happy invention, because the play is now being presented in an environmental production that has turned the big old house on Sheridan Road into the New Orleans boarding house where Williams set his action.

The audience is placed in the building's foyer, from which point customers, by shifting positions in their folding chairs, can see the often uproarious action unfold in several areas of the house. The entranceway, a stairway, and two large rooms representing lodgings of the rooming house residents are all put into play, with the actors squeaking by viewers as they move from scene to scene.

This makes viewing the play quite an intimate experience, and, as an added touch, gumbo and chicory coffee are served at intermission. Better yet, the cast makes the production an engaging occasion.

Nine fine actors portray the various lonely souls assembled by Williams in the boarding house: the bustling half-daft landlady (Kathryn Nash), her ancient black servant (Paulette Mc Daniels), two elderly eccentrics (Helen Merrier and Leah Roshal), a delicate young woman (Karyn Lynn Dale) and her roustabout lover (Andrew Thomas Schlessinger), an itinerant musician (Herb Lichtenstein), and a tubercular gay artist (R. John Roberts, in a most sympathetic portrayal.)

Mingling and commenting on them is the character of The Writer, a young man going through a delicate rite of passage, who is a stand-in for Williams.

Frank Farrell, who portrays The Writer, is the production's coordinator, assisted by Linda LeVeque and Cecilie Keenan. Their work is distinctive and welcome.