The recent success, on Broadway and in London, of Tennessee Williams' unproduced early work Not About Nightingales has producers and directors searching the playwright's catalogue for other underrated pieces. Not surprisingly, much attention has focused on Camino Real. Although the original 1953 production (directed by Elia Kazan and starring Eli Wallach) flopped on Broadway, this singular Williams work has much to offer, including a large number of challenging roles, many high-powered dramatic scenes, and some of the author's purest poetry. Indeed, there have been at least three major revivals of Camino Real in the last two years--at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Hartford Stage Company, and most recently at Washington, DC's Shakespeare Theatre--the latter production featuring a highly evocative setting by Derek McLane.

Camino Real is Williams' dream play, although nightmare is probably a more accurate term. The setting is an unidentified country described by Williams as "a tropical seaport that bears a confusing, but somehow harmonious, resemblance to such widely scattered ports as Tangiers, Havana, Vera Cruz, Casablanca, Shanghai, New Orleans." It's hard to get in to this place, and even harder to get out. Trapped inside the borders are Casanova, Lord Byron, Marguerite Gautier (from Camille), Don Quixote, Kasper Gutman (the corpulent villain played by Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon), and Kilroy, the archetypal innocent American. Camino Real is a kind of carnival in which these lost souls search desperately for some form of escape--from this strange country and from themselves. The play's themes are instantly recognizable to any Williams fan: the search for love versus the pursuit of freedom, the ravages of time, the search for tenderness in a world brutalized by greed and violence.

For the Shakespeare Theatre production, directed by Michael Kahn, McLane kept to Williams' basic conception of a town square. On one side of the stage was the Siete Mares Hotel, where wealthier locals pass the time; across the plaza was the Ritz Men Only, a fleabag for the indigent. In McLane's design, the Siete Mares was represented by a terrace with tables and chairs, plus a wide balcony surrounded by a wrought-iron balustrade, while the Ritz was a tacky little construction with garish lighted sign and a precarious little balcony. (At centerstage was a fountain--also indicated by Williams--which remained dry until the play's final moments.)

McLane also added certain innovations that emphasized the stylized, poetic nature of the play. Williams calls for "a great flight of stairs that mount the ancient wall to a sort of archway that leads out into 'Terra Incognita,' " which may or may not be the portal to death. The designer re-imagined this detail: "It's unclear where the play takes place," he says. "Maybe it's South or Central America, maybe it's someplace more mythical. In my mind, it was up in the stratosphere." Thus the rear drop was covered with clouds; a ramp led to the doorway, which floated in the distance at the back of the set. "It's as if, if you were to climb over the wall, you'd plunge to your death," the designer adds.

In other respects, McLane added scenic details that emphasized the locale's dilapidated, Third-World qualities. These included a crude roulette wheel that flew in for a carnival sequence, and a rough-looking sign, placed in the proscenium, which announced each "block" on the Camino Real (or, rather, each new sequence of the play). The tent for the local gypsy had a palm painted on it, with a jumble of signs placed above. It opened up to reveal vinyl-covered furniture, a tiny brass chandelier, and leopard carpeting. To accentuate the tacky, rundown atmosphere, the entire set, the designer adds, was painted lime green. It was transformed considerably by Russell H. Champa's lighting; for a nighttime sequence, the stage was dominated by crudely done electric signs, with fiber-optic stars on the backdrop. The clever juxtaposition of these two concepts re-imagines the locale of Camino Real as a kind of floating Purgatory, a place of transit from which there is no escape.

The setting for the production was built by the Shakespeare Theatre's scene shop. The scenic painting, depicting the clouds on the rear wall, was done by Li Qiang from Arena Stage, who also worked for McLane on the Stephen Sondheim musical Saturday Night, produced this past spring atNew York's Second Stage Theatre. McLane's assistant on Camino Real was Sandra Goldmark.

This is a busy time for McLane, who has a number of musicals in the works. Already touring the US is Copacabana, with a score by Barry Manilow, based on his famous song. Next up is Little Women, which opens on Broadway in November, and The Rhythm Club, about young swing-music enthusiasts in Nazi Germany, which opens this summer at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, then may move to Broadway as well. Count on each of them to have the same sense of imagination and theatricality as his setting for Camino Real.