A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur

Northlight Theatre

By Jack Helbig

What’s most alluring about this 1979 Tennessee Williams play is not the work itself, written as it was long after he’d lost the divine something that for a time made him the best playwright in America. What’s most alluring is what it could have been–if he hadn’t baked his brain on drugs and alcohol, and if he’d found (and been willing to work with) a company gutsy enough to give this monstrous sacred cow the kind of tough love it needs to be worth watching.

Certainly the elements are here for a great Williams play: dreams, dashed hopes, neurosis, and vulgar reality with all its disappointing compromises. Williams’s setting, in the working-class squalor of south Saint Louis, is reminiscent of the downwardly mobile neighborhoods of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. And the characters in A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur remind us of Williams’s earlier, better conceived heroines. Like Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Dotty–the fading rose at the center of this story–lives in a dream, passively waiting for a knight in shining armor we know will never come. And like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, Dotty has been devastated by a long-ago love affair that went wrong.

Opposing Dotty’s dreams is an earthy German fraulein, Bodey. Like Stella in Streetcar and Laura’s mother, Amanda, in The Glass Menagerie, Bodey has made an uneasy peace with the cynical world. She is utterly resigned to her mundane life at the shoe factory, seems to enjoy her food-filled outings on Sunday to Creve Coeur park, and makes overly aggressive attempts to maneuver Dotty into a relationship with her fat, unglamorous blue-collar brother. And of course there’s a bitchy, hysterical southern belle, Helena, desperate to rise socially but not quite able to accept the fact that the rules for getting ahead in Depression-era Saint Louis are very different from the rules in the gracious southern society she grew up in.

Even Williams’s attempts to turn actual Saint Louis landmarks into symbols of his heroine’s journey echo his use of quaint New Orleans names, like streetcar lines named Desire and neighborhoods called Elysian Fields. But literary tricks that worked like a charm for Williams in the 40s and 50s failed him in 1979. For one thing, the title’s referent will be obscure to those who don’t know that creve coeur means “broken heart.” And to those who do know–or who remember the logo for the suburb of Creve Coeur, a huge red heart with a fissure through it–the metaphor is painfully obvious.

But then, everything about the play is obvious. From virtually the first beat, we know that Dotty won’t find love, that Bodey won’t convince her to face facts, that Helena won’t succeed in coaxing Dotty out of declasse south Saint Louis into an apartment in the fashionable Central West End. Moreover, Williams was apparently aware of problems with the play. In a 1979 interview he mentioned several times that it needed cutting, that the second act was too long, that the first act needed pruning. And he was right–on all counts.

A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is not a full-length play but a one-act with glandular problems. But for whatever reason, the flaws Williams noted were never addressed in the play’s original production. And given a work with problems even the playwright could see, how do the folks at Northlight compensate? I’m reminded of a quip I heard again and again while growing up in Saint Louis, to the effect that it’s a place of northern charm and southern efficiency. The description applies equally to this production.

Cecilie D. Keenan’s graceless staging exaggerates everything that’s weak in the play. The hour-long first act takes forever. Williams’s prosaic, leaden dialogue never reaches the lyrical heights of Streetcar or Sweet Bird of Youth or even the middling heights of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Yet Keenan has her actors deliver these lines as if each and every one were a literary pearl. They seem to feel that they need only speak Williams’s flaccid dialogue and keep from tripping over the furniture, and the result will be a brilliant play. It isn’t brilliant. In fact, with the exception of one remarkable five-minute scene at the end of the second act, it isn’t even alive.

Keenan’s attempts to the contrary, this isn’t really a naturalistic play. It’s a fever dream of life, made all the more feverish by its barely repressed hysteria and by the sense of the brain-scalding summer heat in Saint Louis. It’s no accident that the play is set in early June in an era before air-conditioning, when a badly ventilated apartment could be over 100 degrees–especially when someone’s frying chicken, as Bodey does throughout the play.

Williams’s feverish hysteria is reflected in only one aspect of Northlight’s woeful production: Rick Paul’s beautiful set. This brilliantly colored, consciously cartoonish hallucination in paint and wood mirrors everything I like about Williams’s play: his fragmented style, his spasmodic character development, his refusal to follow the very rules of storytelling he set in his earliest works. There are times in this drama when Williams seems to be straining toward an Albee-esque theater of the absurd. Sadly, “straining” is the operative word. And the play’s potential strengths lie dormant in this production. Too bad that Keenan and company weren’t able to acknowledge the flaws in Williams’s text–then they might also have seen its fascinating departures.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by James Fraher.