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Fragile, nerve-stricken Blanche DuBois can’t stand the bare bulbs of her sister’s apartment. She softens their glare with pretty paper lanterns and cringes from direct light. From her tragic delicacy springs the masterful clash of class, sexuality, and repression that is Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire, playing at the Seacoast Repertory Theater.
In the heart of the working-class French Quarter, refined Blanche (Debra Wiley) seeks out her sister Stella (Elizabeth Barry), who’s now married to the coarsely masculine Stanley Kowalski (Colin Ryan). Blanche and Stella come from old Southern money, and while Stella followed heart and loins into a rougher life, Blanche has long struggled to hold on to the pillared plantation of the girls’ childhood and the manners and finery of the old South. Now the mansion is gone, the economy and the ways of the South have changed forever, and Blanche creates a collision of cultures, personalities, and pasts as she enters her sister’s brightly lit life. Conflict is immediate, brutal, and irreversibly tragic.
At the center of the play is the magnificent Debra Wiley as Blanche, and this veteran actor pulls out all the stops in an emotionally exhausting role. Her Blanche moves with dizzying and heartbreaking ease between neurotic states of hope, righteousness, willful delusion, and harrowing desperation in the grip of her own memories. Wiley’s performance is stunning down to the smallest details — her fleeting expression of disgust when she’s asked to hold a low-brow Kewpie doll; the brief splay of her painted fingers, in sudden joy, over a suitor’s back. She walks a gossamer line between desire and its practiced repression.
It’s the triangle of tensions between Blanche, Stella, and Stanley that frame Streetcar, and in Seacoast Rep’s production, by far the richest rapport happens between the sisters. Wiley and Barry manage to convey layer upon layer of the affections, resentments, and insights that make up any sibling humus. As Stella waits on Blanche with Cokes and liquor, humoring her pretensions, her no-nonsense movements and tone of voice are at once exasperated, genuinely nurturing, and utterly familiar. Though Stella’s eager sexuality toward Stanley sometimes seems forced, the scenes that Barry and Wiley share present an effortless contrast between the respective sensualities of the sister who hides from the light and the sister who has learned to love the brashness of the "colored lights" that she and her husband make flash between the sheets.
As for the object of Stella’s affections, it goes without saying that the first dramatic take on him — by the legendary Brando — defies most rivalry, and pity the actor who has such an immortal cultural memory, and such a great sneer, to contend with. But Ryan’s Stanley has a meaty demeanor and a good range, from the slouching emotional slackness of a beast at the trough to the frightening rages to which drink and the women sometimes send him. His reaction to Blanche, as he secretly listens to her list off his simian qualities, is moving in its subtlety, in the simplicity and surprise of his hurt. Ryan’s Stanley makes it easy to appreciate the man’s hidden insecurities, but he’s weaker at dramatizing the continual smolder of masculinity and volatility that we need to see in order to understand both Stella’s and Blanche’s intense reactions to him. It’s a heat and a tension that should be palpable and ever-building, and in this Ryan comes up short, to the effect that the play’s consummating and violent climax between Stanley and Blanche feels oddly awkward and subdued.
But the mercurial spirit of their French Quarter setting comes across rousingly, thanks to a fine supporting cast, including Susan Norris and Peter Dunbar as upstairs neighbors the Hubbells, Josh Bressette as mama’s boy (and Blanche’s suitor) Mitch, and Coy DeLuca as poker buddy Pablo. In the unrestrained shrieks of their earthy laughter, brash lovemaking, and broken-dish tempers, they weave a rough and raucous texture of their working-class New Orleans world.
The other pertinent setting of Streetcar is Blanche’s mind itself, with its brightly colored menagerie of illusions and terrible memories. The crew of Seacoast Rep’s production helps us peek into that frightening place by way of rather Expressionistic light plots. As Blanche tells of her husband’s suicide, lighting designer Aaron Hutto briefly covers the stage with a grotesque red gel; during other monologues most lights dim as one pale spot comes up slowly over Blanche, a well executed illumination of the woman’s stricken loneliness.
Blanche’s retreat into her own strangely lit world is in Wiley’s hands an even truer, more devastating tragedy for her ability to secure our empathy, not just our pity. The tremulous tectonics of her passions leave us shaken, ourselves, at a vision of what happens when we do and don’t bring desire into open light.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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