Story: The French Quarter in New Orleans is a lively, lusty place, inhabited by musicians, artists and other bohemians as well as working-class denizens such as Stanley Kowalski and his wife Stella. The Kowalskis live on the first floor of a tenement building where the neighbors laugh, fight and love through the hot summer days and warm, breezy nights.
A stranger arrives one day at the Kowalski residence, just off the local streetcar named Desire. A friendly woman named Eunice informs the visitor, Blanche DuBois, that Blanche has indeed found the home of her sister Stella. Although Stella knows that Blanche will be visiting from their native Mississippi, she’s surprised when Blanche arrives with all of her remaining possessions.
It’s a tight squeeze, since the Kowalskis’ home consists of a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom in shotgun style. It’s decided that a curtain will be hung between the kitchen and bedroom to allow for some privacy for Blanche when she sleeps on a cot in a corner off the kitchen.
Blanche tells Stella that she’s taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher in their home town of Laurel. She also informs her sister that nothing is left of their parents’ estate. When Stanley arrives home and learns that his sister-in-law is staying indefinitely and that his wife’s inheritance is gone, he becomes suspicious of Blanche, wondering where all the money has vanished.
He tells Blanche that Louisiana abides by the Napoleonic code, by which a husband is entitled to half of his wife’s possessions and vice versa. He hears nothing from Blanche but vague and unsatisfying answers, though, which further irritate him.
While Blanche spends her days taking hot baths or shopping with Stella, she continues to evade questions about her fortunes. Her attractive appearance catches the eye of Mitch, Stanley’s Army buddy and a regular in the poker games at Stanley’s place.
The quiet, shy Mitch strikes up a conversation with the 30ish Blanche and begins a tentative relationship with her. The lonely bachelor tells her about his devotion to his ailing mother and her hope that he finds someone for companionship before she passes away. Blanche has flamboyant stories for Mitch about her past and he believes what she says.
As Stanley investigates Blanche’s background he is validated in his suspicions, ultimately confronting her with her lies. Blanche’s fragile hold on reality slips further away under her brother-in-law’s nasty assault. Can her romance with Mitch withstand the intense scrutiny of the truth?
Highlights: The centerpiece of this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival, A Streetcar Named Desire is given a bold, beautiful and brazen interpretation under Tim Ocel’s nuanced direction. Standout performances by Sophia Brown, Nick Narcisi, Lana Dvorak and Spencer Sickmann mine the poetry and passion of what Ocel calls Williams’ “greatest play.”
Other Info: The locale for A Streetcar Named Desire blends with the sub-title of this year’s festival, The French Quarter Years. The impressive set designed by James Wolk welcomes an audience into a theater rich with atmosphere, from the drying laundry hanging outside on clothes lines and a row of window shutters across the background to the plain but functional kitchen and bedroom which constitute the Kowalski home, moving from stage right to stage left.
Props manager Christy Sust well appoints the set with a tiny white refrigerator, table and chairs in the kitchen and a small vanity as well as a bed in the bedroom. There’s also a naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling to which Blanche has a Chinese lantern affixed, setting up the drama’s stark conclusion.
Sean Savoie alternates his lighting between the harshness of the day and the shadows of night, underscored by Amanda Werre’s sound design of passing trains, while Michele Siler dresses the characters in the simple, comfortable attire of the residents as well as Blanche’s fading threads.
Ocel directs this two-act presentation like an artist caressing his canvas, with gentle but clearly defined brush strokes for Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch. Brown shows several facets of Blanche’s determined personality, making her more defiant than vulnerable as her fragile psyche slips further down the rabbit hole. She’s an outside force of unknown strength who looms over the French Quarter like an impending hurricane.
Narcisi works beautifully both with Brown and with Dvorak as Stella. Ocel pulls no punches depicting Stanley’s abusive instincts, which Narcisi delivers in cruel, venal fashion. Yet, the actor can also convey Stanley’s childlike dependence upon Stella, wailing inconsolably when she leaves after his latest beating of her, then rejoicing giddily when she returns to his lair in the dead of night.
Dvorak handles the pivotal role of Stella with aplomb, guarding her wayward sister on the one hand while supporting her husband, faults and all, with tenderness and compassion. It’s a difficult part but she is up to the task to the betterment of the entire production.
Sickmann is most impressive as he shows a multi-faceted approach to Mitch. He’s more a concerned son than a mama’s boy, as well as a gentleman who restrains his impulses for the ‘elegant’ Blanche, only to feel bitterly betrayed in the end. It’s an affecting and heroic effort.
There’s superb supporting work from a well-choreographed cast which includes Amy Loui as Eunice, Isaiah DiLorenzo as her hard-drinking husband Steve and Jesse Munoz as poker pal Pablo. Jacob Flekier does well as a young newspaper collector who becomes the object of Blanche’s embarrassing flirtation, while Isabel Pastrana portrays a flower seller strolling through the neighborhood.
David Wassilak and Maggie Wininger play a doctor and his associate who take a really long, slow, deliberate and melodramatic trek to the Kowalskis’ door to escort Blanche to a mental hospital.
A Streetcar Named Desire is rightly considered one of the greatest American plays of the 20th century. Under Ocel’s careful and considered guidance, it’s given a suitably stunning rendering at this year’s Williams Festival.
Play: A Streetcar Named Desire
Company: Tennessee Williams Festival
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: May 16, 17, 19
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ride Hamilton