Carte Blanche’s “Streetcar” electrified
Of all Tennessee Williams’ plays, Streetcar Named Desire remains the most indelible. Most avid theatergoers have seen it or know the 1951 film version with Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando. “Stella!” and “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” are as iconic to American theatre as the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are to classical music.
Carte Blanche Studios’ Streetcar, inevitably, competes with those memorable moments. But director Brian Bzdawka manages to revisit the apartment at 632 Elysian Fields as homage to Williams and still offer a fresh experience.
Williams wrote Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, when the country, bursting with industrial might, convulsed with social change. Williams’ play is about the death of beauty and innocence and, as the streetcar’s name makes clear, a grand metaphor for our most basic motivation.
Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans to visit her pregnant sister, Stella, and husband, factory worker Stanley Kowalski. Her presence upsets an otherwise typical American working class lifestyle. Tensions rise with the temperature and humidity, as Blanche’s presence creates conflict in the confines of the Kowalski’s one-bedroom apartment. Blanche reveals the loss of the family’s Mississippi estate and the suicide of her “degenerate” husband. She tries to seduce the paperboy and marry Stanley’s best friend. But she is up against the hardened realism of the world and the co-dependence of the players around her. Eventually, she is led off to a madhouse, relying once again on the kindness of a stranger.
Clayton Hamburg delivers the classic Stanley Kowalski, as Blanche aptly states, “a survivor of the Stone Age.” Hamburg’s square, compact muscularity sweats bestial oblivion and carnal physicality. Hamburg defines the ultimate male, with chest-beating outbursts as well as emotional and sexual sensuality. Blanche and Stella speak with a soft Southern accent. Hamburg’s diction is clean and non-regional, almost out of place. This distraction fades as the play works its magic and Hamburg settles into a working-class tone. Michael Traynor gives Mitch the sensitivity that is the antithesis of Stanley’s coarseness. He’s an eligible bachelor and preoccupied by his sick mother. Traynor’s tall frame adds to Mitch’s awkwardness as he courts Blanche.
Carte Blanche Studio’s intimate space allows a particularly honest theatrical experience. Downstage, the sidewalk runs parallel to the apartment; the audience, a few yards away, is just across the street. Much as the trio in the Kowalskis’ apartment can hear the goings-on upstairs between landlords Eunice and Steve, the audience observes as intimate eavesdroppers.
The ramshackle apartment set conveys raw working-class life. The slat-like walls offer the hope of a breeze. As beat-up as the furnishings may be, the practical, bare comforts are there. Blanche’s steamer trunk full of bobbles and fancy old dresses is as out of place and incongruous as she is.
Costume designs, by Kate Vannoy, Michael Keiley and Greguska, achieve that American mid-20th century look, with airy dresses, bowling shirts and, of course, Stanley’s obligatory, wife-beater T-shirt.
Tennessee Williams’ work demands conviction, and this Carte Blanche staging has it.
A Streetcar Named Desire will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 29-May 2, at Carte Blanche Studios, 1024 S. 5th St. Tickets are $20; call 262-716-4689 or visit the
Carte Blanche website.