A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those works that jumps to mind whenever one thinks of drama, and as such its performance is a gutsy move in some ways.
Most people have seen the movie and at least one stage production, so there will always be endless comparison. Virginia Stage Company accepted this challenge and the audience reaps the rewards of their ambition.
For those not familiar with the story, southern belle Blanche DuBois has come to visit her little sister Stella at the apartment she shares with her husband, Stanley Kowalski. Okay, it’s not a visit — she’s homeless. It would seem the DuBois ancestors mortgaged the family plantation of Belle Reve to the hilt and Blanche was unable to keep up. The small apartment and the blue collar worker Stanley are not what Blanche is accustomed to, so there is immediate tension. Stanley hits Stella, Blanche calls him out and tries to get Stella to leave, Stanley digs up dirt on Blanche – one big happy family.
It’s Tennessee Williams, so you know it’s controversial for its time (1947), but it still managed to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The characters originally played by Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter have been staples of American drama ever since.
First off, the set! Vintage furniture is set out in various rooms, without actual barriers, carrying the imagination to a small, humble New Orleans apartment. A functional spiral staircase to the apartment upstairs stands in the background to shift action into the street when needed. The genius in this design, however, is the abstract hanging of windows and laundry lines, evoking the feeling of tiny, hot, crowded tenements. Warm yellow lights and haze solidify the setting of a muggy urban dwelling, but simple switches to cool backlight transport the viewer from the sweaty apartment to the harsh inner workings of the minds of the characters. Compliments to both scenic designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Stephen Terry.
Possibly my favorite “character” in this production, one not in the original script, is the musician played by Michael Minix. Minix weaves in and out of scenes playing his tenor saxophone off and on, sometimes heard by the characters, and sometimes heard only by the audience. During scene changes he emerges and diverts the audience with a tune in half light, wandering around the actors as they prep the next scene – a very clever use of his skills.
My least favorite characters — and ones that I was surprised to find were actually in the script — are the “Negro Woman” and “Flower Seller” played by Jasmine Godette and Danniella Pacheco respectively (both ODU seniors) – but through no fault of the actresses. These are written as extremely small roles, but this production has the characters meander around or sit off to the side in some scenes, which just became distracting. During one memorable scene change one of these characters comes out to take a nap on Blanche’s chaise, which seems to only prolong the scene change. I kept asking myself why they were present in a scene or scene change and couldn’t come up with a good answer. If they are meant to be part of Blanche’s mental breakdown, I don’t feel it was successful.
We are not meant to like Stanley Kowalski, and Jeff Barry sees that we don’t. We believe every low thing that he says and does and secretly hope for his comeuppance that those familiar with the show know will never materialize. In between these moments, we are treated to a chuckle every time we learn he’s “got an acquaintance” of one skill set or another (he seems to know a lot of people), or he shows off his knowledge of the Napoleonic Code (only ever to his benefit).
Blanche is not the most likeable character either, but Brandy Zarle is able to court sympathy despite Blanche’s transgressions. She’s a pain in the neck, but her concern for her sister is genuine. It is also no doubt challenging to so convincingly portray issues such as Blanche’s (an attraction to too-young boys not the least among them), but Zarle convinces us, as Blanche did Mitch, that she just needs someone. That said, there are moments of overacting for both Zarle and Jenny Strassburg as Stella. During some of their prolonged exchanges it seems they are grasping for how to deliver the lines, as if there is some new angle that has not been explored yet. Perhaps there is, but I don’t think it was hit upon on this performance.
The rest of Strassburg’s performance, like Zarle’s, displays the true imperfect humanity of the character. You want to shake her for going back to Stanley, for staying with Stanley, for not believing her sister, but at the same time you realize she is doing what so many other people do. When it comes to Stella, it’s the frustration that draws us in, hoping she’ll change her mind, knowing by the way she beams after a night with Stanley that she won’t, even when she’s furious at him and after he throws dishes across the apartment when she dares to express her own anger.
Nathan Hinton’s portrayal of Stanley’s buddy Mitch is so sweet and innocent we are well and truly shocked at his transformation, saddened not only for Blanche’s loss but also our own as Mitch behaves no better than Stanley. Likewise for Eunice, played by Hampton Roads native Pam Good. As feisty and defensive as she is of Stella, Eunice caves just as quickly when faced with her own marital problems, though the temper won’t be soon forgotten by Steve, played by Phillip Martin (also local to the area). The two play off of one another well and, though dysfunctional, this relationship brings some much needed – if somewhat dark – levity to the performance.
Rounding out the cast are Scott Rollins as the doctor, Alejandro Cinder as Pablo, and Dale Van Slyke as the paper collection boy – all three local to Hampton Roads and more than able to hold their own with the pros on stage.
Above minor criticisms aside, Virginia Stage Company’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a success and well worth the price of admission. If you’re able, you should go to the recently renovated Wells Theater to check it out for yourself.
Virginia Stage Company, once again inhabiting the beautiful Wells Theatre, present A Streetcar Named Desire thru Feb. 5. Tix $20 – $55 (depending on when you go and where you sit). Buy ‘em here, or call the box office at (757) 627-1234. VSC are using a lot more local actors in this production than usual—let us know in the comments if an acquaintance of yours drew you out to the show, and what you thought of it!