By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
Both Tennessee Williams in his plays “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Vieux Carré” and John Kennedy Toole in his novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” wrote about the quirky characters of New Orleans in a way that still captures the earthiness, grit and charm of its citizenry.
While the two writers never met in real life, their work will intersect in an interesting and theatrical fashion at the upcoming Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival (TWNOLF). That’s because New Orleans native Francine Segal will be directing a new version of a “Confederacy” play written by Williams scholar Kenneth Holditch, a partial owner of the rights to Toole’s work.
Segal had been a featured performer in previous staged readings of Holditch’s work and had performed in a work he had penned more than 20 years ago titled “Remembering Tennessee.”
“I have so much respect for the man,” Segal told the CCJN in a phone interview. “He is the leading scholar on Tennessee Williams and he has this history with Thelma Toole.”
Thelma Toole was the tenacious mother of John Kennedy Toole, who famously brought her son’s posthumous manuscript to the attention of award-winning writer Walker Percy. That led to its eventual publication by LSU Press and a 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 11 years after a frustrated Toole took his own life.
Because of their history, Segal approached Holditch and TWNOLF executive director Paul Willis about presenting a true theatrical version of “A Confederacy of Dunces” at this year’s festival.
“I told Paul ‘I don’t want to do the simple staged reading,'” she explained. “I re-read he book. It came to life to me. This piece that John Kennedy Toole wrote is so visually splendid and (also) the sound came to me.”
Segal was given the go-ahead signal from Willis and got permission from Holditch to add and reshape material from his original work. In particular, she expanded the role of the narrator to become the voice of Thelma Toole.
“I have her telling the story of the book. It’s much more theatrical,” she continued. “She was quite a character and was extremely eccentric. She was a real Tennessee Williams character.”
Given license to cast the work and to find an appropriate stage venue, Segal set about finding the right stage on which to present the play. She eventually decided on the George and Joyce Wein Theatre located at 1225 North Rampart Street, the new facility owned by the Jazz Festival Foundation and the former site of Tharp-Sontheimer-Laudumiey Funeral Home.
She cast film and TV actor Charlie Talbert in the all-important role of Ignatius J. Reilly and signed veteran actress Brenda Currin to play the newly realized role of Thelma Toole.
Character actress Tracey Collins plays Irene Reilly, Ignatius’ alcoholic mother, while Jo-Ann Testa portrays her friend Santa Battaglia. Edward Cox plays Battaglia’s nephew Angelo Mancuso, an inept police officer, while Vatican Lokey portrays Dorian Greene, a flamboyant and all-too-stereotypical homosexual, who throws lavish parties.
Rounding out the cast are Kyle Daigrepont as Claude Robichaux, an elderly man who befriends Irene, but detests her son; Marie Lovejoy, who plays Jewish beatnik Myrna Minkoff, and Kate Adair as Darlene, a naive stripper with a pet cockatoo. She cast herself as Lana Lee, a pornographic actress, who owns a strip club in the French Quarter.
Because New Orleans of the early 1960s is an integral part of the narrative, Segal also set about researching the music of the period as well as finding iconic photos of the Crescent City, many of which she is utilizing as background projections. The production of “A Confederacy of Dunces” runs just two dates. The first is a benefit performance for the festival on Wed., March 27, which will be followed by two shows on Sat., March 30 at 3:00 and 6:30 p.m.
Segal feels this production will be something Willis and TWNOLF colleague Tracy Cunningham can reprise on an annual basis as a future fundraising opportunity. “They’ve committed,” Segal added. “I’ve got money for costumes, money for set people, money for a projectionist (and) money for a lighting designer.
“I wanted to give them something. They don’t have anything to make any money for them,” she said. “There’re not going to make money this time,” Segal warned, “because you never make money on the prototype.”
However, with costumes, sets and props secured for this year, the cost of remounting the work will be minimal, she said.
As a director and a player, she connects to the book and its weird cast of characters. “This book has its dark underbelly, but it still is a comedy with heightened reality,” she confided. “New Orleans is heightened reality. I mean, look at what just happened with the SuperBowl. What did we do? We go out, do a parade and half the people dress up like the referee that’s blind with a stick.”
Additionally, Segal feels her background as a Sephardic Jew growing up in the midst of the larger Ashkenazi and Reform Jewish communities of New Orleans gives her a special background from which to draw on feelings of being an outsider in a larger community and being part of a place that is vastly different. “Being a Jewish woman and the way I was raised affects everything I do and puts a color, a spin and a varnish on everything that I do, especially with my heritage,” she noted.
Segal considered the case of her parents. “They shared a freedom here. They were able to breathe here,” she stated. “They never felt that way in New York, when they were cloistered by the Sephardic Jewish community (and) where there were so many rules.”
Despite its geographic and cultural differences, New Orleans offered them a place where they could keep kosher and be religious. “They still kept their religion, but they were able to flourish artistically,” Segal boasted. “It’s the same thing as Tennessee Williams, the reason why he called New Orleans his spiritual home.”
Additionally, Segal feels her current work as a dialect coach for many films shot around the country gives her an insight into Toole’s work that only a few can appreciate.
Beginning with John Belushi, continuing with John Candy and more recently with Philip Seymour Hoffman, possible film projects have been announced and then shelved due to the deaths of their leading actors. Some consider the project as cursed.
“Everybody keeps trying to make a movie out of this book,” Segal continued. “The book is all dialogue. The writer John Kennedy Toole was a master of the vernacular, dialogue and the way people speak. It’s not a film. It’s a play. In a movie they cut out the dialogue.”
All of the lines incorporated into Holditch’s play have been pulled from the book, she pointed out. “As a dialect coach I want to make sure that we honor these characters with the proper dialect because that’s pretty important to me too.”
“A Confederacy of Dunces,” will be performed at the George and Joyce Wein Theatre, 1225 N. Rampart Street, on Wed., March 27 in a benefit performance for the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival at 8:00. A cocktail hour will be held for special attendees prior to the performance, after which the author will have a talkback with the audience. The two final performances will be held on Sat., March 30, at 3:00 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available through the festival website or by calling 504-581-1144.