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Lonely eccentrics, adrift in the French Quarter in Tennessee Williams' 'Vieux Carré'

Lonely eccentrics, adrift in the French Quarter in Tennessee Williams' 'Vieux Carré'
Dieterich Gray, left, and Jay Lee in "Vieux Carré." (Nardeep Khurmi)
The singular theatrical voice of Tennessee Williams pulsates through “Vieux Carré” at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.
Although this resourceful Coeurage Theatre Company production of Williams’ kaleidoscopic memory play doesn’t resolve the property’s liabilities, it’s a noble and inventively executed effort.
Begun in 1938, shortly after Williams escaped to New Orleans from St. Louis, “Vieux Carré” wasn’t completed until 1977. Using an authorial surrogate (Jay Lee plays the Writer) as fulcrum, the action concerns various at-the-end-of-their-rope eccentrics at the French Quarter rooming house where he landed.
Equal parts ribald humor, lurid emotion and raw elegy, the Writer's accounts pull a plethora of familiar Williams motifs into play against everyone's crushing loneliness, “a sort of soft, awful groaning in the walls.”
Director Jeremy Lelliott oversees an atmospheric production, from JR Bruce’s skeletal set and Brandon Baruch’s eerie lighting to Magdalena Guillen’s period costumes. The sound design, both James Ferrero’s era music and Jeff Gardner’s array of foley effects, lend a surreal, old-time radio ambience, although the approach could be further expanded.
The cast is variable in polish, uniform in commitment. Melinda deKay’s demented landlady Mrs. Wire, pitched among Patricia Neal, Anne Ramsey and a banshee, gives a courageous, affecting performance. Dieterich Gray overcomes a rather too-healthy aspect as consumptive painter Nightingale, building to a hair-raising culmination.
Sammi Smith’s Northern society girl “betrayed by a sensual streak in my nature” and Shaun Taylor-Corbett as her rapacious bouncer boyfriend represent offbeat casting, although the requisite qualities of desperate pathos and unsettling brutishness, respectively, are still formulating. Leontine Guilliard’s housekeeper, Carryl Lynn and Sandy Mansson’s garbage-picking spinsters, Jonathan Kells Phillips’ clarinetist, Graham Kurtz’s trick and Tony Brown’s photographer/night court judge complete the roster.
Ultimately, “Vieux Carré” is more tone poem than dramaturgy, texture taking precedence over narrative, languorous to a fault. But even back-drawer Williams has passages of unrivaled dramatic poetry, and so it proves here.

“Vieux Carré,” Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends March 12. Pay what you want. www.coeurage.org/vieuxcarre or (323) 944-2165. Running time:  2 hours, 40 minutes.

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