Contemplating the last chapters of Tennessee Williams' career isn't pretty. Booze- and pill-dependent, he referred to the 1960s as his "Stoned Age," and the manner of his death in 1983 (he either overdosed on Seconal, choked on a bottle cap or some combination of the two) suggests that the fog never entirely lifted. Atrocious reviews, delivered annually during his final degraded decades, surely provided little incentive for sobriety.
Looking back more than a quarter of a century later, it's easy to concentrate on the high points, recalling the playwright who took Broadway by storm with "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" — a 10-year stretch that sealed his legacy if not his future happiness. "Vieux Carré," which begins Wednesday at REDCAT in a Wooster Group production, gives us an opportunity to examine whether the dark cloud of Williams' last years may in fact have a silver lining.
Before continuing, let me note that this 1977 play is sure to be put through the New York troupe's multimedia Cuisinart. Elizabeth LeCompte, the Wooster Group's visionary director, doesn't traffic in straightforward revivals. But perhaps an oblique view of the work will shed light on its compelling mystery, opening up a sensibility that was unpredictable in its guises even as it held fast to a core emotional concern for outsiders, or to use Williams' own unbeatable label, "the fugitive kind."
"Vieux Carré" retraces the playwright's journey, picking up, in effect, the story after he left the St. Louis home that he immortalized in "The Glass Menagerie." Set in the New Orleans boardinghouse Williams sought refuge in when he was in his late 20s, this later memory play explores his painful initiation into literary and sexual adulthood. This is a young man's drama written from the perspective of an exhausted older man — a nearly 40-year gap that helps explain the strange proximity of freshness and decrepitude, flustered innocence and festering guilt.
Disease and decay are rampant in the dimly lit ramshackle house the protagonist, known only as the Writer, shares with a bunch of bedraggled outcasts in the late 1930s. Nightingale, a gay quick-sketch artist, is worn out with consumption, a condition he denies even as he coughs up blood. Jane, one of the saner residents, has turned her back on respectability ever since being diagnosed with blood cancer, shacking up with a heroin-using hustler who tries to control her with sex. Two impoverished elderly ladies are so frail with hunger they furtively make meals out of trash. Even the Writer's own relative vitality is tainted — a cataract has clouded the vision in one eye.
Mrs. Wire, the owner of this dilapidated establishment, is like a psychotic in charge of the psycho ward. She barks orders at Nursie, her tired African American servant who's pining for a bag lady retirement, and treats the rest of her boarders as maximum security inmates. A general gloom, compounded by burned-out light bulbs and bats in the banana tree outside, pervades her kingdom.
Loneliness is one of Williams' perennial preoccupations, an existential malady memorably summed up by Val in "Orpheus Descending": "We're all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life!" As with Blanche in "Streetcar," Williams' drifters and renegades are searching for "a cleft in the rock of the world" to hide in, preferably one with a good body and a bank account not entirely withdrawn.
This theme continues in "Vieux Carré," the isolation and alienation as palpable as the French Quarter humidity. Mrs. Wire warns of the fatal consequences of being alone, pointing out to the Writer, "I tell you, there's so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it. Set still and you can hear it: a sort of awful — soft — groaning in all the walls." Williams always enjoyed flirting with the surreal, and here he has conjured something approximating a spook house, a crepuscular realm in which the frantic living stand in unenviable contrast to the peaceful ghosts hovering around them.
Mrs. Wire's cautionary words are directed to someone who knows only too well what it means to be utterly cut off. In one of the most daring scenes of tenderness Williams ever wrote, the Writer is overheard crying — "a sound of dry and desperate sobbing which sounds as though nothing in the world could ever appease the wound from which it comes: loneliness, inborn and inbred to the bone." The garish Nightingale answers the call of this grief, responding with coy conversation and opportunistic sexuality, both of which are depicted with rare sympathy and understanding.