Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A famous streetcar comes to Sacramento

Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” now staged by Big Idea Theater on Del Paso Blvd., is a heroic yet uneven struggle to catch the tragic nuances of this theater classic. Set in the New Orleans of its day, 1947, the play reflects, painfully, the anguish of failure in a clash between two crippled cultures. On the one hand there’s the crude immigrant of Polish stock, Stanley Kowalski, and the romantic throwback to the gentility of the Old South, Blanche Dubois.

Ironically, what they share is a sense of helpless failure.

The impoverished Blanche, sister of Stanley’s wife, Stella, has just arrived from Mississippi, where she lost the family estate after being discredited for her profligate ways. She fancies herself a daughter of the chivalrous “Old South” that died with the Civil War. Stanley, a former master sergeant in the Marines, can be crude and violent. He views as a threat her very presence in his tiny home.

Stella, meanwhile, pregnant with her first child, tries to stand between them. She struggles to calm Stanley while soothing her obviously distraught, alcoholic and somewhat demented sister.

Directed by Jessica Berkey, Alexandra Ralph, as Stella, comes off as a complex and believable woman trying to make the best of an impossible situation. Shannon Mahoney, as Blanche, starts off like a parody of Williams’ complex character but with the second act comes close to rescuing the woman who utters the famous line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

As Stanley, Matt Thompson dutifully projects the sadistic cruelty of Stanley. It’s his defense against a complex culture he cannot master as he rails against Blanche for calling him a Polack. As a second generation American he’s still somewhat of an alien. It’s a common feeling among native-born Americans whose parents were unable to communicate the refined niceties of their adopted culture.

But there is much more to Stanley, something that great actors, like Marlon Brando, brought out. Inwardly Stanley is a frightened little boy, and those who’ve seen the 1951 film remember Brando’s plaintive wail for Stella, as if she were his mother. Although it’s bad strategy for an actor to imitate another actor’s interpretation of a character, it’s every actor’s job to find a truth in the character he portrays.

After intermission, Streetcar comes to life in the striking first scene of Act II. Stanley’s friend Mitch (Justin Lee Chapman) and Blanche have just returned from a date. Although Blanche is on the verge of returning to Mississippi, she and Mitch have clearly hit it off. They like each other. For once the actors project real empathy, rather than imitating alien emotions.

The success of this scene reveals the major weakness of the overall production. The mid-century clash between old and new cultures was not unique to New Orleans. And it still exists in many parts of this country as well as other parts of the world, partly intensified by the ease of migration. The cast seems to catch the play’s subtext late in the performance, but without it the essence of the play is lost.

The cast, the director and others involved in the production are clearly skilled and experienced, but “Streetcar” is a play that cries out for method acting. Unlike Shakespeare, Williams doesn’t offer thrilling poetry to carry the weight of emotion, like the barge that Cleopatra sat in.

Despite its shortcomings this production of a play rarely performed on stage today should be of interest to students and others interested in American theater.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” continues through October 24 at 1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $16, with group rates available. Call 916-960-3036. See also www.bigideatheatre.com.

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