Triumphant "Streetcar" arrives at Intiman
"A Streetcar Named Desire," the Tennessee Williams classic, gets a terrific, astute staging by Sheila Daniels at Intiman Theatre, says theater critic Misha Berson.
Seattle Times theater critic
"A Streetcar Named Desire"Tuesdays-Sundays through Aug. 2, Intiman Theater, Seattle Center; $10-$48 (206-269-1900 or www.intiman.org).
Intiman Theatre's new airing of "A Streetcar Named Desire" ends with domestic pandemonium.
Stella Kowalski (played by Chelsey Rives) is sobbing, as her husband, Stanley (Jonno Roberts), and friend Eunice (Shelley Reynolds) try in vain to comfort her. Their friend Mitch (Tim True) is weeping, too.
The object of their anguish is Stella's sister Blanche, the stricken-looking blonde being led off to her doom by grim handlers from a local mental hospital. And those watching this splendid production of "Streetcar" are engulfed by that same crashing wave of sorrow and pity.
Consider this a great calling card for Sheila Daniels, whose pungently astute handling of the Tennessee Williams classic marks her directorial debut at Intiman (where she is now associate director).
Moreover, it is a victory for Angela Pierce, the well-traveled stage and film actress also in her Intiman debut, in the daunting role of Blanche.
Daniels and Pierce together turn a theatrical icon, so easy to caricature and hard to encompass, into a flesh-and-blood woman of many facets. Foolish and frank, glamorous and haggard, steely-tough and scarily vulnerable, Pierce's Blanche is an actress in her own private tragedy — constantly changing outfits (supplied by the terrific costumer Frances Kenny), personas and strategies in a desperate struggle for (mental and physical) survival.
The last relic of a Southern gentry gone to rot, Blanche turns up broke and soul-scarred in the seamy French Quarter of New Orleans, dragging a trunk and longing for a drink. Rives' more down-to-earth Stella is sympathetic to her destitute sibling. But Blanche can expect no empathy from Stanley, portrayed by Roberts as a shrewd, arrogant brute with a sledgehammer temper.
On Thomas Lynch's remarkable set, which exposes the moldering skeleton of a shabby two-story duplex, Daniels conjures the sort of sensually textured production Williams evoked in his detailed stage directions for "Streetcar."
Alley cats screech. Blues piano (played by Jose Gonzalez) wafts in and out. Shadowy figures stroll by in slow-mo, enhanced by L.B. Morse's atmospheric lighting. And in an added touch here, Eunice and hubby Steve (Timothy Hyland) lead a parallel existence on the floor above the Kowalskis.
Most crucially, Daniels and her actors give us the text itself, with nearly every line ringing clear as a cathedral bell. And a potent case is made for the script's keen intelligence, poetic fervor and unflinching compassion, some 60 years after its premiere.
Also well-exposed are the American class tensions (more blatant in the late 1940s) between a vital, newly empowered working class and the Old South's crumbling ancien regime — which incite a pitched battle between the "bestial" Stanley and the fragile but proudly superior Blanche.
Williams, characteristically, also viewed their conflict through a sexual scrim: Blanche's only survival tools left are her Southern-belle wiles, which she wields to enchant her prey — True's shy, needy Mitch. And her tormented sexual past is starkly contrasted with the hot erotic connection between Stanley and Stella.
But unlike the Elia Kazan film of "Streetcar," in which an androgynously gorgeous god named Marlon Brando made Stanley a sex symbol, the Stanley that Roberts projects is a handsome but nearly humorless buck who vanquishes Blanche with blunt force.
The sexual showdown between the two adversaries here is clearly informed by a post-feminist viewpoint. This is no mutual seduction: It is a rape, by a man who is viciously exerting his power over a pathetic opponent.
Stanley wins back his "kingdom." But Blanche wins our compassion. In fact, if anything, this production may tip the scales a bit too far in Blanche's favor.
But that may have been inevitable, given the dominance of Pierce's unmannered yet richly layered performance. Pierce plays every note in Blanche's symphony of sorrows, truthfully and believably, until the bitter end — when a kind stranger leads Miss DuBois to her unkind fate.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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