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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
A Streetcar Named Desire
The current Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of A Streetcar Named Desire is a renewed confirmation of the timelessness and brilliance of Tennessee Williams's supreme achievement. Against an excellently conceived multi-level set by Harry Feiner depicting a seedy New Orleans French quarter slum and the Kowalski flat, director Bonnie J. Monte's approach is reverential but also revelatory. The nature of its extraordinarily provocative characters continues to have an uncanny hold on its audience. Happily, Monte hasn't messed around with the brute forces that gird the play nor inclined to toughen the softer aspects. She simply gets it right. In fact, she gets it.
Taking Broadway by storm, A Streetcar Named Desire received both the Pulitzer Prize and Critics Circle Awards in 1947. It has had many revivals, some better than others. While some productions favor the play's bid to be blatantly sensational, other productions favor the poetic lyricism that essentially drives this poignant but gritty story of Blanche Dubois, a despondent but extraordinary being. High strung, but proud, she lives in a mist of past reveries while her brother-in-law ridicules and debases her mind and body. What a terrific experience to see this play with all its dramatic elements in place and all its pitfalls traversed with artistic integrity.
Monte achieves what has eluded some of the finest directors. Mostly, she is respectful of this impeccably written play. If there is an inherent danger in the leading role, it is that it lends itself to grandiose overplaying by those actresses who forget that,when Blanche complains to her sister about Stanley's animalism, she is expressing, however faintly, an ideal. When finally, she is removed from their home we should feel that a part of civilization is going with her. This is exactly what we get from a stunning Laila Robins, as Blanche.
That Robins's performance isn't predicated on hysteria, but more conscientiously dedicated to maintaining her emotional equilibrium, is quite marvelous to see. The actress, who is in her 10th season with The Shakespeare Theater of NJ and a veteran of the NY stage, is genuinely heart-breaking in the scene in which Blanche yields to her tormented memories of the "poetic," tragically-fated young man she idolized and married. The part is so exquisitely written and now so exquisitely played that empathy and total immersion of the audience into the plight of Blanche is an automatic and shattering experience.
Almost shockingly, Stella, played with honesty by Nisi Sturgis, earns our attention even in the formidable shadow of Blanche's presence. In control of her household with a positive sense of security, Stella never lets Blanche destroy her world with her disruptive ranting. Sturgis loses little time convincing us that, despite her devotion to her sister, her allegiance to Stanley is never in doubt. Sturgis makes it clear that, in spite of her sexual enslavement, she is content, and even thrilled by her life in the New Orleans ghetto.
Extremely successful in the difficult role of Stanley, Gregory Derelian is an appealingly real consideration of a vulgar and sensual character that might otherwise be merely brutalizing. Stanley's protective and childlike adoration for Stella and his fear of the disturbing influence of Blanche may result in a primitive solution, but Derelian, who is also in his 10th season with the STNJ and created a stir for his titular performance Off-Broadway in The Hairy Ape (Curtainup review), makes sure we don't see him merely as a male animal with macho mannerisms, but as a potentially threatened, sometimes humiliated, protector of his castle. You may want to choke Derelian (as Stanley, of course) for his insensitivity when he reveals to Mitch the secrets of Blanche's past.
Robert Clohessy is excellent as Mitch, the unsophisticated, soon-to-be disillusioned lug of a momma's boy. All the supporting performances are bringing a renewed vibrancy to the inhabitants of the now familiar milieu. They should be commended for glorifying some of Williams's most dazzling array of incompatible humanity. Wendy Barrie-Wilson is especially good as Eunice, the metaphorically intrusive landlady. I recall Ms. Wilson being quite fine in the role of Stella at this theater twenty one years ago.
Fifty-two years ago, when Tallulah Bankhead barged across the City Center's stage in the Williams drama, she was pelted by most of the critics for giving the frayed, if resilient, Blanche Dubois a disquieting brashness. Young as I was (ahem), I miraculously caught Bankhead's "act" during its out-of-town break-in (breakdown???) at Florida's Coconut Grove Theater just prior to the New York opening. I'll never forget the impact of seeing Bankhead (a tarantula-armed tornado) doing what is known in the trade as playing against it.
From the original Blanche, as created by Jessica Tandy, to the myriad of other fine actresses who have tackled the role that many consider the Hamlet for women, I can only say brava to Robins for providing many moments of genuine poignancy, defensive alarm and skittish eccentricities. All of these have been combined to give us a truly memorable Blanche.
Costume designer Hugh Hanson has done a splendid job particularly outfitting Robins in frocks fit for a hot summer night as well as for her escapes from reality. Lighting designer Lighting designer Bruce C. Auerbach's contribution to defining the mood was, as it should be.
Editor's Note: For more about Tennessee Williams and links to plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our Williams Page
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