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From Tennessee to Ethiopia

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In 1944, Tennessee Williams catapulted to fame on the strength of a "memory play," The Glass Menagerie. It is narrated by a young man -- "a poet with a job in a warehouse" -- who lives with his mother and sister in St. Louis. The play is fundamentally about the sister, but in the end, the young man leaves his home, "attempting to find in motion what was lost in space." The cities, he says, "swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored, but torn away from the branches."

The most important of those cities was New Orleans. And in 1978, Williams wrote a sequel of sorts to The Glass Menagerie called Vieux Carré. We meet the young man, now known as "The Writer," in a down-at-the-heels rooming house at 722 Toulouse St. But, where the earlier play is incandescent with Williams' conflicted feelings about his mother and sister, Vieux Carré glows with the more restrained wattage of observation, picaresque detail and a gentle, somewhat humorous coming-of-age story. This is more an elegy to a time and a place than a passionate drama. But it presents a fascinating little world, full of memorable characters and vignettes.

Vieux Carré takes place in 1938 (the year Williams himself first arrived in the French Quarter). Mrs. Wire (played with brio by Beverly Trask) runs the boarding house. She's a tough old bird, used to dealing with the flotsam and jetsam that washes up in this fabled crescent of The Father of Waters. "In a pig's snout, you will!" is typical of her salty, down-home lingo. She takes a liking to the impecunious young writer (an irresistibly forthright Gavin Mahlie) and hires him as the ambulatory publicist for a new restaurant that she inaugurates in her former bedroom.

Romance in its less ethereal forms has been part of the New Orleans mystique since its founding, and 722 Toulouse St. does its part to uphold that venerable tradition. A former New Rochelle college girl (sympathetically brought to life by Andrea Frankle) has shacked up with a black Bourbon Street strip-show barker (a loutish, sensual Tony Molina). A tubercular painter, who does quickie tourist portraits, lives in the attic cubicle next to the writer. This doomed, eloquent soul (a moving characterization by Danny Bowen) seduces the writer -- who is just diffidently awakening to his own homosexual nature. Down in the basement of the rooming house, a society photographer hosts same-sex orgies with young hustlers he collects.

One of the most amusing sequences of the play follows Mrs. Wire's "shock and awe" attack on the basement orgy, when she pours boiling water through cracks in the floor. This results in her arrest, trial and fine -- and, ironically, the establishment of a deeper bond between her and her reluctant coconspirator, the writer.

To my mind, the second act of the play strains a bit at wrapping up the various strands of the tale with suitable dramatic flair. The tubercular man is dragged off to die in a charity ward; the college girl, we learn, has an incurable disease and will soon go under; Mrs. Wire is given a mad scene in which she confuses the writer for her own lost son. Only the writer escapes the general collapse into pathos. He goes off to follow his destiny (literary and sexual) in the company of a young drifter (Michael Salinas), who is driving west to California.

Aimee Michel directed this excellent production as part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

Meanwhile, over at Ethiopian Theatre, the Black Theater Festival premiered Pressed, written and directed by Carmen Barika White. White, a graduate of Ben Franklin and NOCCA, is an accomplished singer who appeared as "the other woman" in the New Orleans Opera Association's production of Porgy and Bess last year. Pressed is her first full-length play, and while it's a promising debut with an amusing central idea and many comic moments, it suffers from an overall uncertainty about what it's meant to be.

A large cast (with some strong performers like Mabel Benjamin, Gail Glapion, Linda Merritt, Lloyd Watts, Deborah Lee Smith, Jainea Williams and Floyd Been) brought to life Marlene's Gifted Hands Beauty Salon, where a psychotic beautician secretly returns all her clients' hair to its pristine nappiness and is strangled by them with the cord of her curling iron in revenge.

Bravo to Ethiopian Theatre for encouraging new work. But a bit more craftsmanship in the script and in the production would help immensely.

Going my way? A young drifter (Michael Salinas) offers a lift to an aspiring writer (Gavin Mahlie) while his landlord (Beverly Trask) looks on in the recent mounting of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carr.
  • Going my way? A young drifter (Michael Salinas) offers a lift to an aspiring writer (Gavin Mahlie) while his landlord (Beverly Trask) looks on in the recent mounting of Tennessee Williams' Vieux Carr.

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