Tennessee Williams’ “Camino Real” is rarely staged, and Girl Friday Productions’ current offering demonstrates why. This sprawling, episodic dreamscape is a heady brew of poetry, raw pain and weighty philosophy that makes it a demanding piece of work for both actors and audience.
“Camino Real” eschews the poetic naturalism of Williams’ better known works such as “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in favor of surrealism. Its initial Broadway production in 1953 mystified audiences and critics and closed after 60 performances. The passage of time has brought the work more measured consideration, but it remains an infrequently produced and somewhat anomalous piece of work in the Williams canon.
The Camino Real of the setting exists both as a place, the main thoroughfare of a port town in a nameless country, and as a state of mind. Its hapless denizens exist in a kind of limbo, desperately seeking escape yet afraid to actually leave. Williams has peopled this world with a fantastical cast of characters, some drawn from literature and history like Don Quixote, Casanova and Lord Byron, as well as others who take on images of folklore, such as La Madrecita De Los Perdidos. The structure is episodic, with 16 scenes that correlate to 16 blocks of the Camino Real.
Director Benjamin McGovern has assembled strong actors who imbue this production with enough energy to offset some of the play’s disjointedness. Eric Knutson is spot-on as Kilroy, the American wanderer who approaches this strange world with bemusement, managing to infuse a role that’s essentially a walking symbol with beguiling innocence and stalwart decency. David Beukema is creepily elegant as a dissolute Baron de Charlus, while John Middleton’s Casanova nicely balances a world-weary cynicism with an underlying frisson of desperation. Sally Ann Wright as the Gypsy, Sara Richardson as her daughter Esmerelda, and Alan Sorenson as a smoothly sinister Gutman also stand out.
This production starts strong, with a first act that creates a finely tuned sense of menace as its disparate characters struggle against unseen forces and their own inertia. By the second act, however, the production starts to sink beneath the weight of so much unexplained portentousness and elaborately overwrought flights of poetic fancy. Scenes and relationships that could be affecting become merely tedious as Williams draws them out in endless strings of philosophic platitudes.
Girl Friday Productions, which has delivered some indelible stagings in the past, deserves credit for attempting this rarely done work, but this production demonstrates why “Camino Real” so often remains on the shelf.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.