NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
A Streetcar Named Desire, arguably the best American
drama of the twentieth century (at least the one that is constantly being produced, even after 50 years of existence), is being given yet another local production as the season opener of Southern Repertory Theatre under the co-production banner of Dog and Pony Theatre Company (i.e. director/designer John Grimsley) and Michael Arata Productions (i.e., the actor Michael Arata who has cast himself as Stanley--the director's first compromise).
This is a stellar, if over-stuffed and elongated, edition of Williams' New Orleans set play about the death of desire as embodied in his most supreme female character, Blanche DuBois, here given an electrifying, satisfying and inspiring performance by New Orleans' premiere actress, Shelley Poncy. Miss Poncy, seen only last month in the goofy highly stylized farce, Daryl's Perils, is a consummate stage performer. People this talented don't usually reside in New Orleans where acting opportunities and monetary compensation are simply too lean to support this kind of talent.
Blanche's abrupt, and unannounced arrival at her sister's, after having been forced out of Laurel, MS by her seemingly depraved behavior and her desperation at and failure to alleviate her dependant condition, is the catalyst for her chaotic descent into madness.
As her nemesis and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, Michael Arata possesses the requisite physique, if not the Adonis-like good looks the part calls for. Here Mr. Arata evinces Stanley's animus and anger to the detriment of any charm or attractiveness. There is precious little difference between his hatred and anger toward Blanche, who has forced herself into his cramped, slothful Elysian Fields abode, and his love of his pregnant wife and Blanche's sister, Stella, played convincingly by Eva Earls. Indeed, his physical violence toward Blanche is almost the same as his violence toward Stella. With his hawklike visage constantly screwed up in anger and vitriol, he becomes almost insufferable. I hated this Stanley and was unmoved by the famous reconciliation scene ("Hey, Stella!!!") and repulsed by the ensuing rutting scene played out in the dark on the bed in the bedroom while Blanche and Mitch begin their fateful tete-a-tete out on the porch. The equally famous rape scene, that is the denoument of this very long-winded play, has also been compromised. Instead of happening on the bed in the bedroom, it occurs on the floor of the living room, with Mr. Arata mooning one section of the audience as he drops his silk pajamas before mounting a prone, non-combative Blanche.
Mitch, Stanley's old war buddy and bowling partner, is played by Danny Bowen whose acting is so good he almost makes one believe that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 208 pounds and is constantly sweating through designer shirts and brand new blue jeans.
Mr. Grimsley's casting is right on the mark in regard to his large supporting cast which includes Carol Sutton as A Negro Woman, Pauline Prelutsky and George Kelly as the upstairs Hubbells, Eunice and Steve, Claudia Baumgarten as the Mexican flower seller, Kasey Marino as the newspaper boy, John and Nancy Hammons as the doctor and nurse who appear in the last minutes to take Blanche away to the funny farm; and, especially, Luis Q. Barroso as Pablo Gonzales-welcome back to the boards, Luis!
As director, Mr. Grimsley has embroidered and emended Williams' dynamic drama profligately-and the same can be said for his sprawling, over-detailed set-which looks like it came, full blown, from the Carrollton Wrecking Co. In adding original incidental music written especially for this production by Delfeayo Marsalis, which is played by a quartet made up of John Touchy on Trombone, Ocie Davis on percussions, Michael Pierce on saxophone and Dwight Fitch, Jr. on piano, Mr. Grimsely excised the amplified music Blanche hears in her head (the varsouviana) which clues us in early on that she is not mentally cohesive. In an obvious sop to the composer, he has interpolated a rather bizarre, time-consuming and plot-enervating jazz trombone solo center stage before Act III. He has also, inexplicably, cut the draping of a shawl around Blanche's head, ala the Madonna, which Mr. Williams dictates for the final tableau to give Blanche a religious significance.
His set, while almost militant in its evocation of a 1948 French Quarter hovel, sprawls all over the Southern Repertory playing area and spills out into the audience. But this has been accomplished to the detriment of the two main playing areas, the two rooms of the Kowalski apartment are simply too small to adequately accommodate the requisite furniture; indeed, Blanche's rollaway bed, when not in use, blocks the entry to the kitchen, forcing the actors to contort themselves unnaturally. His lighting, however, although constrained due to instrument limitations, supports the drama admirably.
The costumes, by Jim Smiley, are a mixed lot which mostly work, especially for Blanche. Stella, however, as her pregnancy becomes visible, is forced to wear waist-hugging, non-maternity clothes over her obvious pillow and this in high heels with white socks! Mitch is clothed in designer shirts stained to indicate sweat and brand-new jeans and shoes. Blanche's trunk overflows with cheap marabou boas and cheaper jewelry--hardly the stuff of a princess!
The sound design by Gerard DiLeo is an aural evocation of a busy, noisy pre-air conditioning period in New Orleans when streetcars did, in fact, rumble and clang through the Quarter.
As the fiftieth anniversary production of Streetcar, there has been amassed in the lobby of the theatre an exhibition of Williams' correspondence concerning the production and unbridled success of the original production, which garnered many awards. This is a wonderful enhancement to the historical significance of the play.
Even with the above carping criticism, this is an overstuffed theatrical production containing an indelible performance by Shelley Poncy which is simply not to be missed and marks an auspicious beginning for Southern Rep's new season, to be followed, on Nov. 14, with Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage, directed by Tommie Myrick.