Throughout his career, Tennessee Williams wrestled with his inner demons, personifying them in weak or dispirited characters who often struggled to distinguish between fantasy and reality. The current production of Camino Real (not the Spanish royal road but the real road), presented by The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans, portrays eccentric and destitute individuals living in a bleak world under apparent martial law.
Even when Camino Real opened on Broadway in 1953, audiences and reviewers were confused by the existential play, which depicts an authoritarian society that challenges citizens' resilience. The playwright himself wrote: "I had never for one minute supposed that the play would seem obscure and confusing to anyone who was willing to meet it even less than halfway."
Camino Real takes place in a plaza flanked by the luxurious Siete Mares hotel on one side and the dilapidated Ritz on the other. At the center is a dry fountain embellished by a headless statue. Don Quixote (Robert Mitchell), seeker of truth and justice, is stopped by a military guard who demands he present identification papers.
A motley collection of characters consists of historical figures, including the legendary womanizer Jacques Casanova (James Howard Wright) and English poet Lord Byron (Matthew Rigdon); aristocrats clinging to vestiges of nobility; and social outcasts, including a blind woman (Lillian J. Small), a gypsy (Mary Pauley) and a vagrant shot by military police and tossed into a garbage barrel by street cleaners. In this inhospitable place, only the rich are safe.
Prudence (Lin Gathright) warns of the fate that results from choosing love over money, "Oh, you can't do that, not now, not any more. You've got to be realistic on the Camino Real."
Into this desolation springs Kilroy (Christopher B. Robinson), an American boxer who embodies youthful idealism. (The cartoon Kilroy represented U.S. soldiers during World War II.) Wearing red, white and blue shorts and a satin robe with golden boxing gloves hung over his shoulders, Kilroy is completely disoriented. Having retired from the ring because his heart was "big as the head of a baby," he represents basic goodness crushed by the powerful. Robinson's amazing athleticism and enthusiasm is a stark contrast to the lethargic hopelessness of town residents.
Williams' characters often are caught between romantic pasts and the harsh present. Director Augustin J. Correro believes Camino Real is relevant to our time and questions whether Williams might have peered into the future through a crystal ball. The gypsy asks: "Do you distrust the newspapers? Are you suspicious of governments? Have you arrived at a point on the Camino Real where the walls converge not in the distance but right in front of your nose?"
While others flee, Marguerite Gautier (Carol Sutton) reaches out to Casanova with compassion, echoing the sentiment from another Williams play, The Night of the Iguana, that hope comes from trying to love and understand people, even in despair.