A Streetcar Named Desire

By - Apr 16th, 2008 02:52 pm
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It’s the most depressing play I’ve seen in over a year. I checked. Tennessee Williams didn’t just want to tell a sad story — he wanted to agonize about it for eleven relentless scenes. He might not have known at the time that he was writing what was destined to be one of the most respected works of American drama to come out of the twentieth century, but he knew how to tell a story people wanted to remember. This month, Blanche, Stella, Stanley and all the rest of the characters from 1940’s New Orleans renew their suffering on the stage of the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove.

Director Mark Salentine has said that he wanted to go back to Williams’ original Broadway script, which focuses on the plight of Blanche DuBois, played here by Mary C. DeBattista. DeBattista renders an impressively complex performance as a fading beauty with faltering psycho-emotional stability. Angela Beyer makes a solid contrast as Stella, exuding an earth-bound pragmatism that fits really well in the role. As Stella’s husband Stanley, Andy North grounds his aggression with a driven, stubborn emotional gravity that maintains the dynamic between the three principals.

This isn’t a perfect vision of imperfection. Environmental sounds are extremely flat and musical scoring added to amplify the intensity proves more of a distraction than an enhancement of the atmosphere. But few minor flaws aside, this is one of the best productions Salentine has directed in recent years. The flow of movement and emotion across the stage is impressively well-modulated. The full ensemble immerses the production in an organic atmosphere aided by a realistic J. Michael Desper set and fight choreography by Gene Schuldt. It’s difficult to make stage fighting convincing, but as we’ve seen before, Schuldt does well with messy brawls; his fight choreography is particularly graphic. His talent is in perfect form here to show the full brutality of drunken human aggression.

And then there’s the smoke, which creates an intense sensory atmosphere that drives home the earthiness of the production. I’ve seen and smelled cigarettes wafting across an audience before. Sometimes the smell of cigarette smoke in an auditorium brings the reality of a character or two into the audience in a novel way. In this production, there are only one or two characters in the entire show that don’t smoke. Stanley’s got a few guys over for a poker game and there are at least four lit cigarettes onstage. The smell of cigarettes, however brief, fills the entire auditorium. A hazy miasma rises into the stage lights. This is a gritty, gritty production, perhaps the darkest Sunset production in years. VS

Sunset Playhouse’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire runs through May 3. For more information call the Sunset Playhouse box office at 262-782-4430 or visit the Sunset online.

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