"Ground-Breaking Performances Mixed with Tragic Heartbreak"
Tennessee Williams' poetic “A Streetcar Named Desire” stands near the pinnacle of great American plays. Its long-awaited production from Stage Door Repertory Theatre (delayed last year due to the Covid surge) is powered by an insightful, passionate performance by the play’s main focal point: Selena Browning (“Bright Star”), as the faded and failing Blanche DuBois. For all her pretense, manipulation and debauchery, there remains in Ms. Browning’s Blanche a transcending, tenacious, childlike innocence and decency, which is heartbreaking at the play’s climax.
Mr. Williams has placed “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the Vieux Carré in New Orleans, where it seems there is or was just such a car, as well as one labelled “Cemetery,” as well as a neighborhood known as the Elysian Fields. The set represents the ratty, two-room apartment occupied by the beer swilling, brutish Stanley Kowalski (Ben Green; “Barefoot in the Park”), a broad-chested young Pole with animal magnetism, somehow cryptically connected to the automobile business, and his compliant, pregnant, highly sexed bride, Stella (Lindsey Eubanks; “Urinetown”).
One spring morning, Stella’s older sister, Blanche, turns up at this hovel with a steamer trunk which seems to contain all of her possessions. She is a strange girl, but at first there is nothing visibly wrong with her except a slight hysteria, which she tries to fight down with frequent surreptitious drinks of whiskey. The condescending Blanche, who parades about with the airs of a genteel Southern belle, is fashionably appalled by the squalor of the Kowalski apartment and the goings on in it, which include an incredibly seedy, brawling poker game, but this is nothing compared with the dismay she experiences at her first sight of her vulgarian brother-in-law.
This is understandable, since Stanley’s character emerges as illiterate, dirty and violent. In addition to the personal disgust he inspires in her, Blanche is slowly forced to realize that her desperate pretending and coquettish charm is no good with him. And when she seems to be infecting her sister with her stylish ways, he drags it out into the light, with contemptuous brutality.
Then, to Blanche’s horror, an upset, drunken Stanley assaults his wife Stella one night, after a losing poker game with his friends. Even more appalling to her, is Stella’s commiseration to Stanley. After hearing Blanche say that he is subhuman, a primitive ape, an animal, Stanley sets out with "deliberate cruelty" to destroy her.
By now, even those totally unfamiliar with “A Streetcar Named Desire” will be aware that Blanche had fallen far and hard prior to coming to New Orleans. After uncovering the pathetic truth about Blanche, Stanley will expose her behavior to his friend Mitch, who had hopes of courting her with marital intent. Then, while Stella is in the hospital waiting to give birth to her first child, Stanley brutally rapes Blanche, destroying what remains of her sanity.
You could make a good case that no character role has had more influence on modern acting styles than Stanley Kowalski, Williams' rough, smelly, sexually charged anti-hero. As he stalks through his little apartment in the French Quarter, he is, as the dialogue often reminds us, like an animal. He wears an old T-shirt that reveals muscles and sweat. He smokes and drinks hard, but at the same time, there is a feline grace in his movements. He's a man, not a clod. If you can take that moment where he assaults Blanche and hold it in your mind, you can see the freedom Williams is giving to Stanley Kowalski - and the range.
Lindsey Eubank’s Stella is also a riveting performance, rendering perfectly the conflicted young post-WWII wife she is playing. She is totally believable as sister to Ms. Browning’s Blanche, and the two actresses shine in their moments onstage together.
Stella tells her sister, "Stanley's always smashed things. Why, on our wedding night, he snatched off one of my slippers and rushed about the place smashing the light bulbs with it." After Blanche is suitably shocked, Stella, leaning back with a funny smile, says "I was sort of thrilled by it." With Stanley, she responds more visibly to his voice while inside the apartment. On the stairs as she descends, her face is almost blank with desire. And the embrace, which looks as if she is consoling him, also looks as if she has abandoned herself to him.
BJ Grip (“Baggage”), as Stanley's lonely buddy Mitch, is all you could ask for in the role, and then some. Mr. Grip and Ms. Browning create a truly affecting pair in the tender closing scene of act one, and he conveys a heartbreaking sense of loss, anger and betrayal when Mitch learns of Blanche's shady past.
As Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the tenement owning upstairs neighbors, redoubtable former Floridian Lisa Caperton (“The Crucible”) and Steven Linhares (“She Kills Monsters”) convey great depths of character with minimal dialogue, as they interact in the upstairs unit as well as in the main action. And though his role of Pablo is a secondary character in the play, Christian Navarro’s (“12 Angry Men”) contribution adds great atmosphere and nuances to the production.
In her SDR debut, J. Rikki Taylor (“Doubt”) as the Strange Woman/Mexican Woman/Creole Woman, and Bill Carson (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) as the Strange Man, make particularly strong impressions as authentic supporting characters; and Evan Fredericks (“Bright Star”) is a young collector for the daily paper who gets seduced by Blanche, sealed with a kiss…possibly the paperboy’s first, but doubtful for the puma.
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Tennessee Williams, is a fine and deeply disturbing play, almost faultless in the physical details of its production and the quality of its acting. It is hard to define it very satisfactorily for those who haven’t seen it. My compliments to the cast and crew, and of course, Director Nick Charles (celebrating his 49th year in theatre), who has illuminated facets of Streetcar’s characters with a rare depth and complexity, placing emphasis on Williams' realism as well as the poetic elements of his play. His production is steadily paced, filling the play with just the right amount of melodrama, while mining as much humor as the story will allow.
The detailed set of the house and apartment and the distinctive New Orleans neighborhood is also the work of Nick Charles, as is the Lighting Design. Sound Design is by Shawn Brewer. And you may credit the always appropriate, evocative costumes to Julie Charles, who also operates sound and light boards. Stage Manager is Donna Nelson; Fight Coordinator is Steven Linhares; Photography by Amy Gettys.
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” by Tennessee Williams, now playing at Stage Door Repertory Theatre, performing from November 26th through December 11th. This production will include the use of herbal cigarettes. Approximate running time: 3 hours. Ticket prices range $18-$23. For performance times, tickets and further information, please call 714-630-7378 (SDRT) or visit http://www.stagedoorrep.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report