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A CurtainUp Review
A Streetcar Named Desire

I can't stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action.— Blanche DuBois
In November of 1947 after a tryout tour to New Haven and Boston, the celebrated young playwright Tennessee Williams and his director Elia Kazan, along with Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter and the rest of the crew all came to the Walnut. It was Streetcar's last stop before Broadway. At the opening performance crowds choked the sidewalk outside the Walnut Street Theatre and swarmed in the lobby. Williams, who was there with Elia Kazan, described the crowd as "pressing like aficionados of the bull ring," and Kazan told him it "smells like a hit." And it was. The audience loved it, and on December 3 it opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York to wide critical and popular acclaim.

A Streetcar Named Desire is good old vintage Tennessee Williams. His timeless themes, including a whiff of remorse for modern life encroaching on a more gracious past, run through it. Modern would mean forties, and with its long poetic speeches tucked into an old fashioned set design, the play now on the Walnut's stage is very evocative of the forties.

The well known, tragic story concerns Blanche DuBois who comes to New Orleans to stay with her married sister, Stella, because their ancestral family home, Belle Reve, has been lost. She does not immediately volunteer other reasons why she may have come. Poetic, flirtatious and manipulative, she attempts to hide episodes of her recent questionable past, bury her desires, and find sanctuary. Stella and her blue collar Polish husband, Stanley, are happy in their rough and tumble life with his poker buddies, their neighbors, and their nights together. Stanley aims to keep things that way and he will defend his territory against the intruder. Later, when things go bad, Stella will feel guilty about collusion as Blanche is increasingly drawn into her world of illusion.
In this new production more attention needed to be paid to the dynamics of the play, for along the way things go awry.

A good deal of artistry went into this fully mounted show. Dominating the stage is the facade of a perhaps once elegant, but now decaying building in the old part of New Orleans. When this drop is raised, the interior is exposed, and it is detailed down to the dusty old conduit on the apartment's walls. The production's texture includes rich lighting, although a tad on the bright side, and perfectly timed musical accents. Among the costumes are exquisite dresses for Blanche which, rather than appearing faded by time and impoverishment, look new.

The play's two original street characters, Neighbor and the Mexican Woman who calls "Flores para los muertos." are joined by new denizens. These colorful, stylized characters stroll and stumble on the street in front of 632 Elysian Fields, covering minor scene shifts and adding to the feel and flow of the neighborhood. Joilet Harris (Neighbor) even gets in a couple of tuneful song fragments when she crosses the stage.

The fine actors playing Stella, Eunice, the poker buddies, and the young collector all deliver thoughtful, ensemble performances. In particular, Scott Greer in the slightly underwritten role of Mitch, Stanley's friend on whom Blanche pins her hopes, brings his character to life as he explores his various shades.

Susan Riley Stevens, cast in the difficult lead role of Blanche, shows no evidence of struggles with ambiguities as she delivers a highly prepared and insular performance. When Stella comes home at the outset, she encounters not a fragile sister in a desperate situation, but an apparently hale and hardy Blanche, who although she claims to feel a bit shaky, appears to be about as shaky as a veteran country music star. Despite her alcoholism and protestations of frayed nerves, she could never be mistaken for frail.

Writer/actor Mark Sam Rosenthal's Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire lives on in NYC beyond the New York International Fringe, where it was a hit. In this outrageous parody an oversized, male Blanche reacts to the indignities of a disaster. But beyond all the lampooning, in that show there is still a feel for a fragile and delicate Blanche DuBois that can not be found in this serious production.

And therein lies a big problem. If you bulk up Blanche and tone down Stanley, then Williams's play is thrown off its delicate balance.

Stanley, who is defending his home and his world, needs to subdue the woman. Jeffrey Coon's Stanley, a little tyrant, must dominate beyond the prescription of the script by finding his way into the reserves of unpredictable dangerousness that the role requires. For Stanley is dangerous to Blanche. The birthday scene where he clears the table is one instance that shows how this Stanley is dangerous by design of the play rather than by the force of personality. For the sisters, as directed, cringe far more than is warranted by his table clearing actions. Importantly, even the key physical pull which must exist between Stanley and Blanche does not ooze through the air of this production. However, in his much anticipated cry for "Ste-l-l-l-a," Coon delivers a plea that is personalized, agonized, and a perfect expression for his character's need.

Perhaps initially thrown off by William's playful sense of humor, which surfaces lightly throughout the work, the audience seems to be up for a comedy. Generalized laughs continue through dramatic and truly tragic parts. A self-assured sort of Blanche, who comes across like some kind of a cowgirl, falls to someone who is not quite her match. Sad things happen, but the guy wears red pajamas and he picks up a no longer protesting Blanche over his shoulder. It appears more comic than tragic, and laughs ensue.

The production looks great, but something in the direction is amiss when characters are out of balance. When many in the audience seem to have mistaken Streetcar for a comedy, the play has slipped out of control.

A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Malcolm Black

Cast: Grace Gonglewski, Joilet Harris, Jeffrey Coon, Sandra Struthers, Dan Olmstead, Scott Greer, Laura Gaspari, Susan Riley Stevens, Ephraim Lopez, Evan Jonigkeit, Hazel Bowers, John Russell
Set Design and Lighting Design: Paul Wonsek
Costume Design: Ellis Tillman
Sound Design: Christopher Coluccci
Original music: Laura Burton
01/13/09 — 03/01/09, Opening 01/21/09
Approx 3 hours with 2 intermissions
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/23 performance at the Walnut Street Theater
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