Many of Tennessee Williams' best-known works are set in unmistakable places. A Streetcar Named Desire is set in and inextricably linked to New Orleans. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reveals a family's pathos on a Mississippi plantation, home of its patriarch Big Daddy.
Williams' Camino Real, which debuted on Broadway under the direction of Elia Kazan in 1953, has a more surreal setting, though the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans is mounting it in part because of its sense of timeliness.
"We have police brutality perpetrated on a black person in the first 15 minutes of the show," says director Augustin Correro. "The totalitarian government keeps poor people on the poor side of town. There's hints at a travel ban. It's really timely."
Camino Real takes place in a mysterious border town, with each block stranger than the last. Kilroy, an American soldier and former boxer, has stumbled into town and tries to adjust to its strange ways.
The play has its own sense of timelessness. Stray figures from literature and history live in the city or visit, including the buffoonish would-be Spanish knight Don Quixote and the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Italian philanderer Casanova solicits Marguerite, the courtesan from Camille, and she tells him "Distrust is the defense against betrayal."
Much of the drama takes place in a plaza in the center of town, with a fountain in the shadow of a border wall. A line separates the rich and the poor sections of town, and residents are cautious about crossing it. There's an authoritarian air to the place, and even the street sweepers circle ominously, carting away the dead.
Camino real means "royal road" in Spanish, and Williams turns the phrase.
"You never know exactly where you'll end up on the Camino Real," Correro says. "You come to the end of the Camino Real — to the walled city. It's not the royal road anymore. It's the real road."
But the city also is a magical place. A fortune-telling Gypsy is excited to announce that the moon soon will restore her daughter's virginity.
"The play is off the wall," Correro says. "The Gypsy says camino real is a funny paper read backwards. There's all this seediness and darkness that that implies."
The drama opens the Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans' season Friday at Marigny Opera House. The company focuses on Williams' lesser-known works, including his one-act plays.
Camino Real is the company's largest production to date, with a cast of 22. The Marigny Opera House also gives the production more seating than previous venues, which have included intimate settings such as the barroom at Mag's 940. The size of the stage also has allowed the company to build its most extensive set and create an almost immersive entrance into the world of Camino Real.