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Chicago by John Olson

A Streetcar Named Desire
American Players Theatre

Also see John's reviews of An Iliad and Pippin


Tracy Michelle Arnold and Eric Parks
One of the most popular American plays written in the 20th century, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has remained a favorite with critics and general audiences alike for its timeless themes, vivid and sexy characters, and its very specific and colorful setting of New Orleans' French Quarter just after World War II. Chicago-based director William Brown has tinkered with this formula by moving the time up to 1963, established mostly through music and costumes. Sound designer Andrew Hansen brings in "Dancing in the Streets" and a few other tunes of the early sixties into the underscoring, and Rachel Anne Healy's period costumes include a skimpy pastel two-piece for Stella in the play's first scene. What distinguishes Brown's production more than its time frame is its naturalistic tone. He plays it all quite straight and believably—never approaching the heightened reality or worse, camp, that can trap directors.

Certainly much of the appeal of this piece for audiences and artists alike comes from the complexity of the characters and the many ways in which they can be interpreted. Brown's Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle who has lost everything and must move in with her sister and brother-in-law in a tiny rented apartment, is stronger and more consciously calculating than she is sometimes played. Tracy Michelle Arnold, a 16-season veteran of APT with many key Chicago credits on her resume, gives Blanche a certain steeliness. Even when confronted by Stanley with her lies, she convinces us that her duplicity was planned all along—not the result of delusions. With this suggestion that Blanche possesses a certain cunning, her criticism of Stanley to Stella thus poses a real threat to Stanley and sets up his eventual violence and betrayal of Blanche. It's a strong performance, more than worthy of this iconic role.

Brown has similarly made a very specific and fascinating choice in his casting and direction of Eric Parks as Stanley Kowalski. While audiences have enjoyed a certain love-hate relationship with Stanley as a sexy brute (much as Stella does), this Streetcar's Stanley isn't so approachable. Perhaps to justify our own attraction to the character (the role made Marlon Brando a star, after all), we often like to have some empathy with Stanley. Here, we see more the abusive and calculating sides of the man. A military veteran (presumably of the Korean Conflict, in Brown's 1963 setting), he's a blue collar guy in a white collar job as a travelling salesman. While not seeming horribly ambitious and certainly not a social climber, he's clearly out for himself and resentful of the remnants of the "old South" social structures that would hold back a person for their eastern European heritage (English and French lineages are much preferred in these circles, thank you very much). Park's physique, which we see much of, as he's shirtless more than not in this staging, is slender—toned, but suggesting a "lean and hungry" villain more like Shakespeare's Cassius than a matinee idol. With the help of Tyler Rich's fight choreography, his physical abuse of Stella and Blanche is indeed frightening.

More in sync with previous interpretations are the excellent performances of Christina Panfilio as Stella and Tim Gittings as Mitch. Panfilio, Park's real-life wife, is no victim. She's fully aware her husband would not meet the standards of her old-line Mississippi family and has a toughness all her own. The slender and balding Gittings has all the insecurity and sensitivity of the mama's boy Mitch, making it as credible that Mitch would be taken in by Stella as that he would dump her after seeing others disapprove of their match. Brown has the African-American actors Demetria Thomas and La Shawn Banks play neighbors Eunice and Steve Hubbell. I would consider that color-blind casting more than an element of the updated setting. My research suggests blacks and whites weren't really living together in 1960s New Orleans. It's a good choice, though. Ms. Thomas's spunky Eunice makes the character more interesting than it usually is, and there's an amusing subtext when she lets Blanche into Stella and Stanley's apartment. As she's telling Blanche "we own the building," Eunice gives Blanche a look that suggests an unspoken rejoinder like "surprising as that probably is to you that black people would own property."

The early sixties were a time of great social change, particularly for the more segregated and socially conservative South. African Americans, benefitting from the economic boom of the fifties, were able to buy homes and the civil rights movement accelerated. Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" was published in 1963, beginning the second-wave feminism movement that would challenge the traditional male-female roles that are at the core of this play. Certainly the options for autonomy would increase for women like Blanche and Stella as the sixties continued. There might even have been less disapproval of Blanche's sexual activity in the wake of the pill and the sexual revolution of the sixties. It may have been Brown's intention to add another layer to Williams' theme of learning to accept change. Just as the DuBois family's estate Belle Reve fell out of their hands, signifying the end of a sort of southern rural aristocracy, perhaps Brown is showing how the world was changing for Stanley as well. The 1960s were becoming a time in which male and white supremacy was no longer a given. For someone struggling to find a way up the ladder of social mobility this might be very threatening to Stanley—a changing of the rules just as he's trying to figure them out.

Regardless of the changes in the outside world, there's something timeless about the French Quarter of New Orleans and its 18th and 19th century architecture. Kevin Depinet suggests the physical look of the area nicely with a minimal set that suggests the building exteriors, adorned with subtropical flowers that connect the buildings to their environment and enhance the outdoor setting of our viewing in APT's "Up the Hill" amphitheater. Through imaginary "walls" we see the cramped apartment of the tiny building. The Quarter's vibe as an oasis from the more structured society of the rest of the U.S. doesn't make it completely immune to change, though. If, as Brown suggests, the story could as easily have occurred in the early sixties as the late forties, it's doubtful it could have happened in the same way much later than 1963. None of this interpretation of Brown's conceptual choices is necessary though. The shift in era is unobtrusive and does not detract from what remains a very satisfying take on this much produced and familiar classic.

A Streetcar Named Desire will be performed through September 5, 2015, at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Rd., Spring Green, Wisconsin. Performance dates and times vary for more information and tickets, visit www.americanplayers.org or call (608) 588-2361.


Photo: Carissa Dixon

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-- John Olson



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