Tracks of her tears 

When great theater turns good

It takes guts to tackle A Streetcar Named Desire, a play as violent and harrowing as any on the landscape of American theater. Tennessee Williams abandoned one century and invented another with Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, tampered with marriage and gave dignity to the ever-present ghosts of longing and envy, of lust and loss. He did battle with all the myths of the South and still left some of them intact. Streetcar is a pure, dazzling, brilliant play and undeniably American in its fictions and cruelties.

Montana Rep, the house repertory company of the University of Montana, follows its Miracle Worker with another Big Play, this one directed by Greg Johnson, who also directed the Rep’s Death of a Salesman recently. The company has stated its mission to bring classics to the masses, and it’s doing a fine job: The works on view do not necessarily advance theater, but they are good theater nonetheless.

Good theater done well is a relief, and good theater done very well is a privilege. But what about great theater produced with only superficial resonance? This Streetcar is all dressed up and technically assured, but its principal actors falter. They concentrate on their characters’ big moves but rarely on their subtleties, and never their sympathies. If we feel no sympathy for Blanche DuBois, then we feel nothing for A Streetcar Named Desire.

Midway through its national tour, the company has come home to show the play for several performances. The production emphasizes decay with its gloomy grays, stained fabrics and hole-punctured curtains. Every wall and division in Bill Raoul’s strangely delicate set is diaphanous, an element echoed in Blanche’s clothes, for which designer Christine M. Milodragovich has employed gauze and chiffon. When Blanche writes out a telegram, she does so on a Kleenex, another fabric just a sneeze away from coming undone. Blanche is as frail and see-through as the last moments of a dandelion, and this production honors that state throughout its design.

Amy Laxineta as Blanche blows into her sister’s home with vanity and coyness and keeps things at that level for the rest of the play. Her shrillness—in contrast to her grounded sister Stella (April Sweeney), and to the aggravation of Stanley (Matthew Brumlow)—never lets up, and her inability to reveal Blanche’s heart leaves her audience flat. Blanche’s great reverie of lost youth and sexual betrayal at the hands of her young, suicidal, homosexual husband seems like little more than another card she’s using to trump Mitch. Failing to believe deeply in the character herself, Laxineta never allows herself to be swallowed by Blanche.

Brumlow, too, capably manages one layer of Stanley but nothing more. He’s a cocky little boy, active and inattentive, bounding around the room, leaping upon the furniture. Masculinity, of course, is crucial to Stanley’s bestial, rutting energy, and we keep waiting for Brumlow to grow into a man rather than playing at a man. Where is the power so irresistible to Stella, the stench of sex and sweat that makes him carnal and dangerous?

In that remarkable role of Mitch, Bret Tuomi has some nice moments and provides sympathy and patience, as well as pathos, when the audience is looking for some. He moves gracefully between bashful suitor and humbled lover, and the scene of peacock’s boasting when he forces Blanche to hit his stomach is wonderfully uncomfortable, a glimpse of the man he has never allowed himself to be but yearns to embody. When he turns on her out of his own pain, his cruelty illuminates, for just a moment, what is worth protecting in her, and rouses the audience to momentarily care for Blanche’s pathetic, vanquished soul.

Sweeney’s performance as Stella is an athletic one, her body always moving to reflect the growing life inside her. At the periphery, the supporting players brawl cartoonishly and scream and howl. Johnson has meanwhile eliminated the tensions of race—which underwrote so many of the South’s (and the nation’s) tragedies, and which certainly have meaning for the DuBois sisters, descendants of plantation owners—by changing the single black character to white.

Is Stanley Kowalski where we were headed in 1947, the year Elia Kazan directed this play on Broadway? The brutish force of war and the plain arrogance of the win, the cheery industrial toughness, the vulgar material pleasure—these were national characteristics! After 60 years, we find ourselves right back in the same spot as we hear Blanche urge her sister, “Don’t hang back with the brute!”

A Streetcar Named Desire runs Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20–21, at 7:30 PM, with a Saturday matinee at 2 PM, at the Montana Theatre. Call 243-4581 for ticket information.

Contact the reviewer: arts@missoulanews.com

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