By Lynn Venhaus
New Orleans is only 142 miles from Laurel, Miss., but in a formidable, slow-burn “A Streetcar Named Desire,” it’s a world away for Southern belle Blanche DuBois.
Blanche is a relic from the past, one of the most captivating tragic figures in literature. Already fading and fragile when she arrives on the doorstep of her sister’s cramped two-room flat, she is ultimately broken by Stella’s brutish husband Stanley Kowalski, who discovers her secrets during a doomed power play.
These two iconic roles clash one long, hot summer in the French Quarter. Some 70 years after Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece stunned audiences on Broadway, the Tony-winning passion play is as potent as ever in the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis’ engrossing production.
Director Tim Ocel has expertly unearthed raw depth, revealing fresh layers and a new perspective. You might not see the sweat, but you feel the immediate and essential heat.
Noticeable is the humanity, real flesh-and-blood portrayals and not over-the-top caricatures. Over the years, especially after the award-winning 1951 movie with its indelible Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Stanley and Blanche have slipped into pop culture clichés, exaggerated into comic archetypes, bordering at times on the Carol Burnett school of sketch comedy.
But not so here. In a virtuoso performance, Sophia Brown plays Blanche as a magnolia with more steel than projected. In her last-ditch effort to salvage some happiness and dignity, she gives Blanche various shades of gray, not so black-and-white — full-bodied, yearning, sultry and flirty, with a palpable sadness.
With her natural beauty and grace, Brown mesmerizes. Instead of showing us a pathetic, pitiable soul, she subtly reveals a desperate, regretful woman beaten down, barely clinging to reality; longing to turn back time and grasping for magic in a cruel world.
Ill-equipped to take charge of her childhood home, Belle Rive, and care for dying relatives, Blanche used her feminine wiles to survive, but the property slipped away anyway. However, a suspicious Stanley has seen through the charade, aiding in the downfall.
Nick Narcisi doesn’t overpower as Stanley, nor is he as imposing as usually depicted, but his masculinity and primal force are evident. The coarse Kowalski is a product of his time, a working class ‘man’s man,’ who fought in World War II and now is starting a family.
Wary of this interloper, he sees Blanche as a user – taking over his wife’s attention, putting on airs, and bankrupting what little family fortune Stella had coming.
Blanche’s coquettish demeanor contrasts to Stella’s plain-Jane personality, but Lana Dvorak doesn’t make her any less of a woman. In a sharp performance, she’s strong as well as selfless, content with her life, but torn in her loyalties.
As Stanley’s Army buddy Mitch, Spencer Sickmann gives us a sweet, lonely bachelor who easily falls for Blanche, but then is destroyed by his protective friend’s sleuthing. Always compelling, Sickmann makes you ache for him.
Their futures forever altered, these portraits are devastating. The cast has found new elements through Ocel’s digging on character development, even the small supporting roles are well-modulated.
They all learned to live in this world – uncouth neighbors Steve and Eunice – the always interesting Isaiah DiLorenzo and Amy Loui – plus briefly seen card player Jesse Munoz, neighbor Isabel Pastrana, and collector Jacob Flekier, with David Wassilak and Maggie Wininger the medical team.
Williams’ remarkable understanding of human nature, particularly women, is so textured in this production, it’s another rediscovery. His recurring themes of loss of love, youth and beauty are emphasized here, all in one compact setting.
Ocel purposely keeps everything moving briskly but you still feel the claustrophobic nature, that the place can’t hold both larger-than-life Blanche and Stanley. The Grandel Theatre is a cozy place for such a combustible work.
And the staging is impeccable, from composer Henry Palkes’ original jazzy blues score to Sean Savoie’s shrewd lighting design to scenic designer James Wolk’s multi-layered evocative lower-class set. Amanda Werre’s sound design shines, allowing the cacophony of a steamy city to come through for added effect.
Costume designer Michele Siler’s ethereal selection of Blanche’s outfits, so tastefully detailed in every way, is exquisite, and her vintage pieces for the ensemble astutely convey the period.
Whether you have seen this before — but really, rarely done on stage anymore, maybe because of the daunting weight this classic has, this will put your pre-conceived notions on standby.
This intense retelling stresses why this is one dramatic work that deserves its hallowed place in American theater.
What the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has done so well the past three years is vigorously delve into the works of the great American playwright, who spent his formative years here. Artistic Director Carrie Houk and her team has spotlighted his little-known works, and now this legendary play, enlisting top-shelf talent to provide extraordinary insight.
Like the glass figurines in Williams’ first attention-getting work, this haunting staging of “A Streetcar Named Desire” shatters expectations and conventions, a fitting tribute to his genius.
The Tennessee Williams Festival presents “A Streetcar Named Desire” May 10-12, 16, 17 and 19, at 7:30 p.m., May 13 at 3 p.m., and May 19 at 2 p.m., at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. For more information, visit www.twstl.org
Photos by Ride Hamilton.