If you didn't know better, you'd think a play featuring a muscular, beer-swilling Polish mechanic on a bowling team would have to be set in Cleveland. Fortunately for the world of literature and theater, however, Tennessee Williams placed his immortal ode to the destructive persistence of illusion, A Streetcar Named Desire, in the seamy underbelly of New Orleans. Commuter trolleys there were given such evocative names as "Desire" and "Cemeteries," practically begging a playwright to pen a script dealing with passion and death. But Williams did far more than that, weaving the genteel dreams of Blanche DuBois, a shabby but determined Southern beauty, into the sensuous lower-class lifestyle of her younger sister, Stella, and Stella's brute husband, Stanley.
Of course, hovering over any staging of Streetcar is the Goodyear-blimp-like presence of the late Marlon Brando, who forged Stanley Kowalski's petulant man-child persona on Broadway and in film more than 50 years ago. Fair or not, any group hopping on this tram had better first make sure it can clear the Brando hurdle -- not by mimicking his iconic portrayal, but by matching its physical intensity and stark honesty. While Porthouse Theatre's Stanley comes up short on a couple counts, there are positive aspects to this production that make it worth a jaunt to the Blossom Music Center campus.
The play's narrative line is quite simple, but the undercurrents Williams sets in motion are enormously battering. For once Blanche enters the cramped and sweaty confines of the family Kowalski, following the loss of her family's plantation home, her eventual destruction seems all but inevitable. First chiding Stella and then confronting the boorish behavior of Stanley, Blanche unwittingly cuts her last stabilizing ropes and becomes a handy foil for everyone else's shortcomings. Eventually, Stanley finds evidence that Blanche is far less pure and noble than she lets on, which drives a wedge between Blanche and her budding suitor, Mitch, and leads to a rape that sends her reeling into dementia.
As Blanche, Monica Bell hits all the right notes in the first act, trailing her faux antebellum charm like a ratty stole through the detritus of beer bottles and cigarette butts that litter the two-room flat. Bell presents Blanche as a fragile woman with whims of steel, and her illusions ("I don't tell what's true, I tell what ought to be true") seem compelling enough to overcome her aching vulnerability. But the bubble bursts after the intermission, and Bell is less successful in showing Blanche's slow decline into madness, not taking enough acting chances to convey her character's tenuous hold on the moment.
In a role that could easily be shunted aside, Dennis Delamar as Mitch, Blanche's skittish would-be-lover, is absolutely genuine. The scene in which he and Blanche share their personal griefs -- his for his dying mother and hers for her first husband, who committed suicide -- is close to perfection, combining tragic insights with the tender playfulness of budding affection. Meg Kelly Schroeder's Stella is also strong, but her well-scrubbed Midwestern good looks don't quite match up with this French Quarter woman held in thrall by her husband's sexual charms, even in the face of physical abuse.
Ultimately, however, the apelike Stanley is the beefy fulcrum of Streetcar, since he forces everyone to dance to his selfish, immature tune. This production's Stanley, as embodied by the ever-scowling Scott Sowers, is more of a gym rat than a gorilla. A bit short and appearing at least 10 years older than the supposedly 30ish Stanley, Sowers is a perfect candidate for the Men's Hair Club (receding hairline fore, bald patch aft). Looks aside, Sowers always seems to be acting tough, his anger a thin veneer instead of a deep-in-the-marrow inarticulate rage. In the scene everyone knows, when he cries out "Stella!" after she's run from another beating, it sounds less like a cri de coeur than the irritation of a guy who's misplaced his bowling wrist-thingy.
Director John Woodson nicely blends the elements of raw, naturalistic drama with the lyrical flights of bygone manners that Blanche embodies, but some details are left unattended. For example, Stanley's poker-night buddies play cards propped stiffly in their chairs, more like obedient fourth-graders than old buddies who kill two cases at one sitting. And perhaps Woodson couldn't get more out of his Stanley than he did, but that weakness at the center pulls all the other performances down a notch.
Still, there is ineffable magic in Williams's words. When a character says, "An hour isn't an hour, but a little bit of eternity dropped in your hand," one appreciates it in context while noting how well that describes the work itself.
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