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Chicago by John Olson

A Streetcar Named Desire
Writers' Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Aftermath

A Streetcar Named Desire
Natasha Lowe, Matt Hawkins and Stacy Stolz
When Blanche Du Bois moves in to the two-room apartment of sister Stella and Stella's husband Stanley Kowalski during a New Orleans summer in the late, pre-air conditioning 1940s, the tension is exacerbated by the close quarters and the need for three adults to share a single bathroom. I think this came through for me seeing the 1951 film version of the Tennessee Williams classic and also in the other stage production of it I've seen, but in this staging for Writers' Theatre, director David Cromer and set designer Collette Pollard have put a scale replica of a New Orleans shotgun house right on stage in Writer's 108-seat theater. The claustrophobia grows on you over the play's three hours in a way a proscenium staging or two-dimensional screen just can't. You see the characters' need to walk through the bedroom to get to the single bathroom in this two-room apartment with no hallway. Pollard's set must be roughly the 30-foot width of a typical shotgun house, and I'd guess the same length as the real thing. Cromer gives up some visibility for this realism—a few key scenes have one or more actors completely out of view for some critical speeches and dialogue. The tradeoff seems deliberate and is worth it, though. Together with Pollard's realistic, shabby design for the Kowalski house at 632 Elysian Fields Avenue—authentic down to the cheap dinette set and linoleum tiled kitchen floor—there's a sense of peering in on the action through a window from the house next door. The communication of environment is on a level that would normally be possible only in a novel.

The set isn't the only innovation Cromer offers in revisiting this classic, just the first and most obvious one. It takes a while to see where he's going with his Blanche. As played by Natasha Lowe, she seems younger than I typically picture the character, though with a striking resemblance to the young Jessica Tandy who originated the role in 1947. Cromer knows where he's going with her, though, and his production makes Blanche clearly, indubitably the focus of the story. Lowe plays her as determined and manipulative. Not mad or delusional, but as Williams' dialogue states, a woman who knowingly chooses to create fantasies for herself and others. It's a measured performance, with Lowe unafraid to push the envelope when called for, but never campy or over-the-top.

Cromer further shows Blanche's frame-of-mind by reinforcing Williams' text with some stage directions of his own. When Blanche speaks of Allen Grey, the sensitive young husband she lost by his suicide, we see Grey lit by a spotlight in the audience and her haunting memory of him is made all the more real and tangible to us. Cromer goes a step further by adding a still tableau of Blanche's memory of finding her young husband naked in bed with another man—the incident which led to his suicide. One suspects that Williams, who had to tone down this subtext for the movie version, wouldn't have minded this idea at all.

Though Blanche figuratively gets top billing in this production, it's not a negative reflection on Matt Hawkins' intense and frighteningly powerful portrayal of Stanley. Though his volume and sudden bursts of temper and physical violence may not literally blow you away, they surely do push you back in your seat when delivered just a few yards from your face. Hawkins, a fight choreographer as well as an actor and director, knows how to make the blows look real. He's utterly fearless in the part and Cromer directs him to be purely cruel to all around him. He has a charming, manipulative veneer when he needs it, but this Stanley is clearly an abusive husband and is in no way a sympathetic figure or a role for a matinee idol. The muscular Hawkins has the character's physical presence and sexiness, but it only works on Stella. We see through it too thoroughly to be taken in. Cromer's focused, unambiguous interpretation of Stanley lets us center our attentions on the complexities of Blanche.

Stacy Stolz plays sister Stella with a steely resolve. She's tough enough to stand up to Stanley when she must and smart enough to know how far she can push him. She's compassionate with Blanche, and shows some regret for having left her and the remaining family members behind when she departed their plantation in Mississippi for New Orleans some ten years earlier. Her physical attraction to Stanley is apparent, and Cromer has the two simulate sex (with Hawkins bare butt on display) in the bedroom as Blanche sits in the living room, separated from the bedroom by a curtain over a doorless arch. (Stolz and Hawkins are married in real life, by the way.)

As Mitch, Stanley's buddy who dates Blanche, Danny McCarthy's performance successfully challenges memories of Karl Malden's. McCarthy's Mitch is not just a shy bachelor, he may be a bit simple as well. When he comes to believe Blanche has deceived him, his cruelty toward her seems all the more possible. We can almost hear Stanley's egging him on to treat Blanche rough. Those unfamiliar with the plot may wish to skip this spoiler: Cromer's choices here make it obvious a marriage between Blanche and Mitch would be a disaster. When Mitch abandons his plan to propose, it's seen now as not so much a loss for Blanche. Rather, the fact that she would consider marrying him at all shows just how limited are her options and how far she has fallen.

Another small but significant choice Cromer makes is to cast a college-age actor as the Young Collector—the paperboy with whom Blanche flirts. Ryan Hallahan plays the kid as knowledgeable enough to know what Blanche is up to; together with his older appearance, Blanche's attentions seem to be inappropriate, but not pedophilia. The choice keeps our sympathies more with her.

Jenn Engstrom is delightfully earthy as the neighbor/landlady Eunice. Together with Loren Lazerine as Eunice's husband Steve, the two provide context as rough, common denizens of this neighborhood just outside the French Quarter.

The lighting design by Heather Gilbert creates the hazy, humid glow of New Orleans at dusk, and effectively introduces harsh lighting when the script calls for Blanche to be confronted with reality. At one point, in a scene between Mitch and Blanche, in the name of realism we can barely see what's going on at all. A candle is lit, which continually grows brighter, and we barely notice when Gilbert's stage lighting begins to assist. Janice Pytel provides costumes that believably evoke the work clothes and house dresses, as well as the Saturday night finery of the lower classes at mid-20th century, not to mention the faded elegance of the dresses in Blanche's trunk.

This is, sad to say given my previous opportunities, the first example of Cromer's work that I've seen. Having seen this Streetcar, I think I can understand what the excitement over his work is all about. This production is smart and insightful, bringing a clear, consistent interpretation to a rich and complex classic.

A Streetcar Named Desire will be performed through July 11, 2010, at Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe. Tickets are on sale through the Writers' Theatre box office, 376 Park Avenue, Glencoe; 847-242-6000; www.writerstheatre.org. Follow Writers' Theatre on Twitter at Twitter.com/WritersTheatre and each day by 3pm, Writers' will tweet a code that can be used to purchase remaining seats for that day's performance at a discount. Tweet Seats are available for purchase only through the Writers' Theatre website at writerstheatre.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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