Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
A Streetcar Named Desire
Also see Dean's review of Sister Act
Sometimes being a critic is so easywhen there's nothing to criticize. When a production is as perfect as this one, all I really need to say is that everyone who has even the slightest interest in live theater, and even those who think they don't, should see this show. Perfect play, perfect cast, perfect directing, perfect set, props, lighting, sound, costumesperfect everything.
I've seen A Streetcar Named Desire four or five times before, and this is without doubt the best production of it that I've seen. Apart from the sheer joy of seeing a classic play performed flawlessly, it got me thinking about a few things that I hadn't thought about before. Like, what is it that makes it such a great play. It's a very particular story of four people in a very particular place and time, in a situation that most of us would never find ourselves in, and yet somehow it has universal resonance. What makes it last?
I was in the Soviet Union about 35 years ago and it was being done on stage there in Leningrad. I remember thinking, why would Russians be interested in a story that takes place in 1940s New Orleans? What could they see in it? It has finally dawned on me that of course the Russians could relate to this play. They invented the genre. What Tennessee Williams wrote was a Chekhov play for America. The landed gentry has become effete and decadent, forced to sell off the old estate bit by bit, until there is nowhere left to go but down. The "common" people, uncouth and full of brutish vitality, are the ones who prevail. Every generation has a dreamy nostalgia, a belle rêve, for the old ways as it sees its culture being replaced by the crass shallowness of the new. Most of us sympathize with Blanche, maddening though she is, more than we do with Stanley.
Another thing: Paul Ford, who directed, made a smart move by starting the show with the epigraph that is in the published text of the play. It's a stanza from Hart Crane's poem "The Broken Tower" and it's worth quoting in its entirety: "And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love, its voice / An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) / But not for long to hold each desperate choice." (The voice you hear at the Vortex Theatre reading these lines is that of Tennessee Williams himself.) Isn't this the story of Blanche du Bois encapsulated? Broken, desperate, grasping at each instant of love, but unable to hold it for long.
And mightn't Hart Crane be the inspiration for the young gay poet in the play who kills himself, for whose death Blanche can never forgive herself? Hart Crane committed suicide at age 32 by jumping off a steamship on his way back from Mexico, just before noon. His body was never found. Doesn't this explain the strange lines that Blanche speaks very near the end of the play: "And when I die, I'm going to die on the sea ... And I'll be buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboardat noonin the blaze of summerand into an ocean as blue as my first lover's eyes!" My God, the language!
It's the language that makes this play a work of art: the refined poetic diction of Blanche versus the coarse vernacular of Stanley Kowalski and his poker buddies. Somehow, Williams pulls it off that Blanche's lines don't sound phony, despite their frequent lyricism and preciousness. There's a famous line in the play, when Blanche says: "I don't want realism. I want magic!" The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. This play is totally realistic (if it were an Italian opera, it would be called verismo), but out of that realism arises magic.
Enough random musings. Let's turn to this production. Paul Ford has such a reputation as both actor and director that he can get the best people in town to collaborate with him. The show rises or falls on the actress playing Blanche, since she's on stage during almost the entire show, and I've never seen a better Blanche than Bridget Kelly's. Her accent sounds natural, her body language is pure Southern belle, her desperation is palpable, and her descent into a delusional state is completely believable.
It's great to see Chad Brummett back on stage (he doesn't have much time for it because of television work), and Stanley is a perfect fit for him because he's always been a physical actor. Except for the "Stell-lahhhhh!" scene, Marlon Brando never even crossed my mind. Amy Bourque is wonderful as Stella, and her calling out as her sister is being led away at the end of the play is absolutely gut-wrenching. Mark Hisler also does excellent work as Mitch, the guy that Blanche leads on for a little too long.
The supporting players are all top notch, too. Jen Stephenson shines as Eunice, the upstairs neighbor. Clifton Chadwick and Stephen Armijo as the poker buddies, and Ludwig Puchmayer and Linda Sklov as the doctor and nurse, are all fine; it's a shame their roles are so small. Thomas Yegerlehner stands out in a brief but revelatory scene, when a young man comes to collect for the newspaper and Blanche puts the moves on him, so quickly.
The set by Dahl Delu and props and set dressing by Nina Dorrance are so good that you would think you're in a Broadway theater. Likewise, the lighting design by Richard Hess, the sound by Casey Mraz (who seems to work on every show in town), and costumes by Rosemary Castro-Gallegos are all absolutely professional. We may not take notice of the work of stage manager Rachel Nelson-Schille and assistant stage manager Hanna Cooper, but that's because it's so good.
Paul Ford directs straightforwardly, not tricking it up with showy directorial flourishes. I'm really glad that he wanted to do this play. It's a little risky to do a play that most theatergoers have seen already. People say, I've seen it enough times, it's depressing, and besides, I can always watch the movie again. But it would be a big mistake to miss this production. Even though we're still in the first quarter, I feel it will turn out to be the best thing I see in 2018.
A Streetcar Named Desire, through April 15, 2018, at The Vortex Theater, 2900 Carlisle NE in Albuquerque NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets $19 to $22. Info at vortexabq.org or 505-247-8600.