I have a dear friend whose favorite line — when going to see a show which might or might not provide a good theatrical evening — was “Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
This, I am hesitant to say, was my state of mind as the curtain went up on The Barn Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Three hours later, however, I unconditionally joined the rest of the opening night audience in offering the fine cast a standing ovation, something that does not come easily for me. This is not traditional summer theater fare, but it is a classic play solidly done and deserves to be seen.
Don’t let the three hour running time (including intermissions) deter you from seeing this sharply directed, sensitively performed and very involving production. It is Williams, a playwright known for his extended prose, and, written in 1947, it comes from the era of three-act plays. Here, however, even if you are a great fan of the 1951 Marlon Brando/Vivian Leigh multi-Oscar winning film or have seen the play itself more than once and know exactly how the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama plays out, this production will keep you awake and involved.
First I must credit guest director Dee Dee Sandt, herself a former Barnie, whose sure hand guided the fine cast through the frequently turgid waters of Williams’ prose. The pace never lessens and the familiar characters never become stereotypes (kudos to Eric Parker for making Stanley Kowalski’s “Stellllllaaaah” definitely his own creation) or caricatures. Rather they take on individual personas.
Cast in the pivotal, multi-layered role of Blanche duBois, who arrives in New Orleans’ French Quarter via the title’s streetcar, is longtime Barn leading lady Penelope Alex, known primarily for her comic timing in the frequent farces which are audience favorites at the Augusta, Mich., theater. Her portrayal of the fading southern belle, a former English teacher walking a fine line between fact and fantasy, is sensitively and sympathetically drawn. Revelation of her past results in rejection by her flawed beau and a brutal attack by her brother-in-law which, when all else has failed, makes Blanche’s final harrowing escape into the world of illusion wrenching but necessary for survival.
Parker’s Stanley is arrogant, egocentric and extremely possessive of things he perceives as his own — his house, his liquor, his wife — and he instantly sees Blanche as a threat and an intruder in his domain. His harsh treatment, which culminates in rape, finally removes her from his world.
Stella, Blanche’s “baby sister” and Stanley’s wife, is beautifully underplayed by Meg Schneider. Caught between two dysfunctional factions, she struggles to do the right thing but, inevitably, must believe the lie in order to retain her sanity
Mitch is one of Stanley’s bowling, beer drinking, poker playing buddies. In the talented hands of Roy Brown, he is more of a gentleman than the others and Blanche’s insistence on courteous behaviour intrigues him. With the discovery of her deception, hurt becomes anger but, even so, rage is tinged with sorrowful regret.
The Kowalski’s upstairs neighbors are played by Melissa Cotton and Hans Friedrichs. They mirror the younger couple’s passionate, combative relationship, making the distance between the French Quarter and the social structure of Blanche’s memory an even wider abyss. . (Note: The film version, made under Hays office restrictions, sends Stella upstairs with her baby at the finale vowing never to go back and eliminates mention of the homosexuality of Blanche’s young husband, whose suicide haunts her more and more frequently.)
The set works well but the lighting design allows for too much light in scenes that are meant to be dark and makes the harsh effect of removing Blanche’s Japanese lantern almost negligible.
The many emotions that surge visibly and invisibly throughout “Streetcar” make it a drama that still speaks to audiences almost 65 years after its creation. The Barn Theatre production is one example of why it continues to survive.
“A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” plays through Aug. 7 in the theater on M-62 between Galesburg and Augusta, Mich. For reservations and performance times, call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily.