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A Streetcar Named Desire, Reviewed
NoDef Theatre Critic Jim Fitzmorris gets off at Elysian Fields, and heads to Michalopoulos Stuido for Southern Rep and InsideOut's production of Tennessee Williams' New Orleans-set classic of the American stage.
Around the midpoint of Jason Kirkpatrick's stunner production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Michael Aaron Santos' Stanley Kowalski, having endured enough insults at the hands of Aimée Hayes' Blanche Dubois, bellows at her from his bedroom:
It strikes the listener like a ton of bricks: one hundred percent American. In a singular roaring moment, the entire nature of Kirkpatrick's take on what is arguably the greatest of this country's dramas comes to the foreground: a battle over identity not just on a personal level but also one of community. Stanley is the brave new world of post-war America brutally reminding his ethereal sister-in-law that she is a past time whose existence is entirely dependent on the decisions he makes. Kowalski is a stranger lacking in kindness.
This insight is the foundation of Southern Rep/InSideOut's bracing staging of Tennessee Williams' masterwork. A stylistic collision of slice-of-life and dream play, this Streetcar, augmented by a design firing on full-cylinders, is a gut-wrenching, romantic and, finally, devastating evening of theatre. And all of it is held together through an arresting performance by Hayes as Williams' tragic heroine. She and director Kirkpatrick not only give us a Blanche that is a painfully sympathetic lost soul but also use the construction of character to unify the stylistic choices of the play. Using Dan Zimmer's mixture of realistic and magical lighting to guide her, Hayes moves between the callous reality of poker games, beer bottles and packaged meat and into a more poetic world of expressionism and memory. Featuring uniformly, excellent performances and brilliant dramaturgy, it is in a different league from other productions in town and needs to be measured as such.
Underneath a pervasive sadness, Hayes' Blanche is an indefatigable optimist. The performance is an exquisite unraveling of soul and psyche, carefully calibrated without being a closed system from her fellow actors. Blanche's lonely birthday party, which is devastating on the page, is beyond heartbreaking in Kirkpatrick's production. Over the slightly lopsided cake Stella has baked for her sister, the director and actress combine to create a frozen moment of past, present and future. We see the little girl of irrepressible hopes, the anxiety-ridden disappointed woman of the moment, and the shattered shut-in to come in the glow of the birthday candles on The Kowlaski's kitchen table. Her ability to shake off the disappointments and tragedies of the past finally failing her, Hayes' creation pulls herself together one more time, instilling hope in the viewer, but in actuality only making the final indignities to come even more of a gut punch. There is not a moment in this production, despite Blanche's petty insecurities and scheming, that we believe she deserves a thing that happens to her. If you think that premise is a no-brainer, then you would be horrified how many interpretations of this play have suggested otherwise.
And that is the true reason the sadness strikes so deep: the contrapuntal sweetness that Hayes and her director have crafted for Williams' most famous creation. The performance works, not because of the gloomy, elegant foreboding with which Kirkpatrick and his designers have filled the space, but on account of the fact the collaborators are rooting for Blanche to pull it off. Because they are, we join them. I have always believed the measure of a great Hamlet is whether the audience starts rooting for him to escape the undiscovered country. The same is true here. We like this Blanche so much that we find ourselves willingly suspending our knowledge of the play's dark destination. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is peace of mind on the coast with Shep Huntleigh or whoever else might ride to her rescue. For this Blanche, a chivalric past, underscored by the spectral sound design of Brendan Connelly, calls to her just over the horizon.
If there are any skips in this otherwise pristine record, it is in the failure of the physical violence to match the emotional content. Plates do not break, slaps do not sting and punches are not landed. It is the only element in this otherwise transcendent production that rings occasionally false. The scenes of physical confrontation and overt violence feel mechanically staged rather than organically realized, and so, it has the unintended effect of ever-so-slightly disrupting the ferocious whole. It undercuts Santos' otherwise cunning performance. He sets us up by making Stanley initially seem an abrasive but fair man only to slowly show us the brutal cruelty underneath. It is a sinister take, because it makes us emotionally invested in the agent of the heartbreak that lies ahead. The fact that his violent exertions are not the measure of his emotional pyrotechnics prevents the show from putting an exclamation mark on unqualified greatness.
But greatness need not be perfect, and that aforementioned issue fades in the face of the evening's accumulating pleasures. The final two actors of the central quartet are the equals of the leads. Ashley Ricord Santos gives a high wire act of a performance, striking just the right balance as the true object of desire in the play. We watch her torn to and fro between the potent future offered by her dominating husband and the nostalgic dreams and guilt of her manipulative sister. If you can take your eyes off her costars, you will see a sophisticated woman who has willingly given up a more refined life for that of primal, albeit pleasurable, survival. Her performance is a series of silent decisions that leave no doubt of her inner conflict. And the always excellent Mike Harkins uses his natural decency in creating a Mitch that makes his ultimate betrayal of The Belle from Mississippi feel on the level of The Man from Kerioth. He seemed in a perpetual place of unrequited longing, a man whose wants do not match his capacity for their realization.
Part of Kirkpatrick's triumph is avoiding the typical pitfalls that usually hamper the play. It why I believe, unlike my fellow critic and friend Theodore Mahne, that this production is dramaturgically and emotionally far superior to the visceral but wrongheaded 1997 staging of the tale. Along with making sure the only southern drawls are those of The Sisters Dubois, Kirkpatrick uses the terrific, humanly comical performances of supporting cast members such as Tracey Collins and Phil Karnell, as the ribald neighbors Eunice and Steve, to create a landscape that feels more New Orleans than almost any other production of this play I have seen. Monica Harris, Martin Covert, Donald Lewis, Dean Wray, Caitlyn Allison, Darnell Thomas, and Charles Buggage each strike just the right balance between fully explored characters and necessary texture to a create a portrait of the city the show usually lacks. It feels like a recognizable New Orleans rather than the easy jazz clichés or the even more offensive simply-another-southern-city landscape. Think about it this way: if it were simply Atlanta or Dallas, would Blanche be so out of place? The production knows New Orleans is not The South and establishes that reality early by having Hayes enter in one of Cecile Casey Covert's meticulous period piece garments: she is a ghostly, radiant presence of poetry in a grimy, vibrant naturalism. A lovely memory of an America that never was.
Kirkpatrick and set designer Bill Walker understand Stanley is neither poor nor a slob. With the faintest hint of Jo Mielziner's original design and a large assist from The Michalopoulos Studio location, Walker builds a world justified in the text by The Kowalskis' modest but growing finances and creates an apartment that is not squalor but cramped and claustrophobic. A man who was a master sergeant, is his company's top representative and can afford both participation in a bowling league and a night at Galatoire's might be a vulgarian but he certainly is not poor. The only reason Stanley does not own a home is the post war housing shortage and the fact that the G.I. Bill is a year away. Kirkpatrick knows this and makes sure we do as well. He resists the easy urge to set the play in a fictional Lower Slobovia that has grounded other, lesser productions. Instead, as the lights fade and Blanche recedes into the shadows, we know too well it is only a matter of time before Stanley packs up the family into his car, heads on out to Gentilly and into the heart of "the greatest country on this earth."
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