We all kid ourselves every day about who we really are, and thank god for that. If we had to actually confront our personal realities, with all our vulnerabilities and missteps in full view, we'd never crawl out from under our beds.
That's why it's still easy to relate to Blanche DuBois, the deluded and shopworn Southern belle at the heart of A Streetcar Named Desire, now being produced by the Mamai Theatre Company. Blanche is a mystery wrapped in a cascade of feminine flutters, frequent swigs of booze and a constantly misdirected libido.
Arriving in the French Quarter of New Orleans, after the family estate in Mississippi was lost, Blanche decides to nest with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Supposedly on leave from her job as a teacher, Blanche soon takes over the dingy two-room flat, thumbing through her memories of her dead husband and dodging Stanley's pointed questions about how the sisters' family home disappeared into a pile of legal paperwork. For a while, Blanche finds a safe harbor in the interest Stanley's poker-playing buddy Mitch shows in her. He's a good-hearted bumbler and she is drawn to his earnest attraction
It's no secret that Streetcar is a luxurious gift to actors who are bold enough to take on the challenge. Embellished by Williams' magnetic words, almost every character has lines that pulse in the moment and then reside in your brain for much longer.
Since Blanche is on stage for most of the show, she represents a huge risk-reward equation. And in this instance Bernadette Clemens handles the task with remarkable skill. Although she doesn't possess the birdlike frame of Jessica Tandy or Vivien Leigh, renowned actors who previously have played this role, Clemens homes in on Blanche's bravura belief in her own fictions and "the kindness of strangers." Like so many U.S. presidential candidates who blithely ignore facts while preening in front of others, Clemens' Blanche is invested fully in her own fantasies.
Clemens is particularly effective when she interacts with Stanley, the sexually magnetic brute who slaps Stella around when they're not making love. As we find out, Blanche has been around the track with men, and in Clemens' portrayal we see her revulsion mixed with sexual desire.
Some roles in theater are challenging not just because they're hard to do but because they are too easy to do wrong. Such is the case with Stanley Kowalski, a man who is often performed as just a violent jerk with, we would imagine, some pretty powerful chops in the sack. In this production, Jason Kaufman nails the macho, malignant side of Stanley, disrobing at times to reveal a cut bod, slapping dinnerware around the place in a fit of pique, and bellowing "Stella!" with the best of them.
Resembling Christopher Meloni who played Detective Elliot Stabler on Law & Order SVU, Kaufman plays the detective role to the hilt, stripping away Blanche's gauzy fibs as easily as his undershirt. Less in evidence is the boyish, vulnerable side of Stanley that would give his impulsive outbursts more context and dimension. It's a devilishly difficult mixture to achieve, which is why Stanley is probably the most demanding role in the show.
As Stella, Rachel Lee Kolis brings simple honesty to this role that requires her to be a figurative and literal punching bag for both Stanley and her sister. John Busser makes the most of his scenes as Mitch, conveying an average-guy normalcy that is quickly shredded by Blanche's whirling blades of need. So when he eventually turns on her, it feels doubly shocking. And Christine McBurney is helpful as Stella's upstairs buddy Eunice.
Streetcar is sometimes dissed for it's dated cultural references, since Blanche's sexual history, the "scandalous" reveal of her husband's homosexuality, and other tidbits (what the hell is a streetcar?) feel oddly out of place in today's world. Once a contemporary theater event when in debuted in 1947, Williams' opus has now become a period piece and should be viewed that way. Sure, we no longer look with petrified shock upon a woman who tosses back some drinks during the day or who reveals the sexual side of her nature. But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate how that would have gone down more than a half-century ago.
Director Mitchell Fields keeps the pacing of this fairly long work admirably brisk, and the small touches of N'awlins life help round out the setting, such as the flower seller at the conclusion who is offering "flores para los muertos."
Ultimately Blanche gets on that passionately directed conveyance, but it takes her instead to the end of the line. As built by Mr. Williams and conducted by the Mamai Theatre Company, this is a streetcar ride well worth taking.
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