Friday, June 7, 2013

A Streetcar Named Desire—Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Ashland, OR

The Kindness of Strangers

This classic play from Tennessee Williams is playing at OSF,
Bowmer Theatre  through October.  It is directed by Christopher Liam Moore.  For more information, go to their website at or call 541-482-4331.

Streetcar… was a terrific hit on Broadway and was the vehicle that catapulted Brando to stardom.  It was equally successful as a film, having all four leads nominated for Oscars and Leigh (Blanche), Malden (Mitch) and Stanley (Stella), winning.  It also has had a London version directed by Olivier, a ballet version in Canada, an opera by Previn and a television production.

The story concerns Stanley (Danforth Comins) and his wife Stella (Nell Geisslinger) living reasonably happily in a run-down section of New Orleans during the late 1940’s.  Intruding upon their insulated world is a remnant from the Old South, in the form of Stella’s sister, Blanche (Kate Mulligan).  She is about as compatible to this atmosphere as oil would be to water.  Posey vs. beastie, it just won’t mesh.

Stanley almost immediately takes a dislike to Blanche, especially after seeing her expensive finery and discovering that she has lost their family estate under rather mysterious circumstances.  Meaning, of course, that his wife (and him) is also out some dough.  And since they are going to have a baby, this weighs doubly hard on them.  Blanche is also something of a boozer; is constantly berating them as “common;” and seems to have moved in, having nowhere else to go.

It becomes clear, early on, that Blanche is either terribly naïve about the real world, or may be short a few flowers in her bouquet.  She brags about how pure she is in her views of romance, yet it is discovered that she was staying at a hotel known for solicitation of men by its clientele.  She is a tea-tipper in public and whiskey wallowing in private.  Her airs whisk her up to Posey peaks, but the webs she weaves, expose her fragile threads in society and sanity to scrutiny.  A moth flying too close to the flame will be consumed.

But her world may yet be balanced, as she meets Mitch (Jeffery King), a friend of Stanley’s, who seems more refined and sensitive than the rest of the rabble.  She chooses to hang her delicate hat onto the crux of this blossoming relationship, in the hopes that it will repair the unrelenting unraveling of the tenuous tapestry of her life.  But not allowing sleeping dogs to lie, Stanley spills the beans to Mitch about the truth of Blanche.

And, add one more fatal thrust by Stanley, and Blanche’s world is totally destroyed.  Her scene now will become one of drugged dreams and padded pathways to the land of bygone beaus and measured manners.  And Stanley and Stella’s world will give birth to a new, but probably no wiser, generation.  Survival of the fittest has been proven.  The King still rules the Castle.  And the beat goes on…

This is probably the finest production of this play I have ever seen, out of about a dozen I’ve witnessed.  The stumbling block in the script is that it seems to condone abuse.  In the last moment of the play, Stella’s reaction is crucial.  Stanley has not been above slapping her around, as he feels it’s a man’s prerogative to do that.  But now, at the end, with a new life in the home, will things just return to “normal?”

I have seen a production where Stella’s reaction in the final moment, suggests she may leave him and that, to my way of thinking, is the correct interpretation, especially in the light of today’s world.  But, and my only argument with this production, is that it seems to indicate that Stanley will make her see “those colored lights” again and she will submit to his controlling influence.  If so, then the Beast has won and Society takes a giant step backward.

The set (design by Christopher Acebo) is quite extraordinary, presenting the iron-wrought, gothic, harsh world of this period, yet like a transparent skeleton, exposing the underbelly of civilization.  Furniture and props are only what is needed for the scenes, leaving the bulk of the story to be relayed by the powerful script and exceptional cast.  Lighting (Robert Wierzel) and costumes (Alex Jaeger) are equally effective in complimenting the talent presented.

Moore has assembled a perfect cast for this show.  The supporting players add to the reality of the surroundings and help extend, for the audience, the inner workings of this simplistic, yet complicated world we are experiencing.  And the seemingly effortless flowing from one scene to another, taking time to highlight the important passages, yet connecting all the dots of the intricate story, is amazing.  And I’m sure he can be credited with exploring all the nuances of each of the main characters, giving us the fullest and richest interpretation of each.  Bravo, Christopher.

Comins is the finest Stanley ever (since Brando), bar none.  Not only does he cover all the bases in having us understand the basis and basics of this role, but he does one thing that none of the actors I’ve seen playing this role have done.  He enacts Stanley, not Brando playing Stanley!  Thank you, Danforth.  And you see the reasoning of this character and why he does the things he does.  Not that you’re suppose to agree with him (you’re not).  But that you understand where he’s coming from…and it’s okay to disagree with his actions.  He’s not heroic and it’s not played that way.  Nor should it be.

Blanche has been played, running the gamut from naïve and misunderstood, to a raving lunatic.  The truth lies somewhere between.  Likewise, Laura, from Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, is often pictured as painfully shy.  She wasn’t.  His model was his real sister, Rose, who was committed.  Tennessee’s worlds, both real and staged, were touched by madness of one sort or another, the “walking wounded,” as one might say.  But they all had moments of poetry, as if to say, we all need a little madness at one time or another, to keep the sane ones on their toes, if for no other reason.  “Sometimes there’s a God, so quickly!”

Mulligan’s Blanche fulfills that needed balance to the role.  Sometimes you feel you want to rush upon the stage to rescue her and to keep her from falling deeper into her self-made abyss.  Although the role seems to be self-mocking, at times, you never feel unsympathetic toward Kate’s Blanche.  “A blinding light of something half in shadow.”  She, like Danforth’s Stanley, presents you with the bare facts as to who they are, without making any self-judgments.  An acting attribute, devoutly to be attained.

Geisslinger, as Stella, possibly has the most difficult role in the show.  Although not of the complexity, perhaps, as the two leads, she is the soul, or prize, they are playing for.  She represents the woman, born of one way of life, but fated for another.  A secondary role, one that might reach for the brass ring and obtain it, but, then what…?  Nell does a terrific job of letting us see her thoughts, of a woman in love and lust, but not necessarily willing to expose the audience to the results of those musings.

And King, as the lumbering, sympathetic Mitch, shows us the sad little boy trapped in big man’s body.  One feels like shaking him, waking the core of him, to see what he’s really made of.  But this man-child might only be a rag doll, with only sawdust keeping him upright.  Jeffery shows us exactly the right combination of the dichotomy between us desiring to hold him and protect him from the world and yet wanting to kick his butt for being so insensitive to Blanche.  Again, a balance well performed.

I highly recommend this show.  It does deal with adult subject matter but if it compels dialogue, then it has been worth the trip.  If you do go, please tell them Dennis sent you.  For another perspective, please check out Greg’s blog site:      

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