You Can Depend on STREETCAR at Spots
For those who have never seen A Streetcar Named Desire, the production currently playing at Baltimore’s Spotlighters Theatre will make a fine first impression, I’m sure. For those who have seen Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tragedy, it’s worth the trip to Spots for the opportunity to see the play staged in the round. Especially during the first act, director Sherrionne Brown and her generally excellent cast bring a rough, infectious energy to each scene; the sights and smells of 1940s New Orleans—where the aging beauty Blanche DuBois has journeyed to visit her younger sister, Stella, only to meet her doom at the hands of Stella’s coarse husband, Stanley—seem to swirl through the aisles with all the vibrancy we expect from an enchanted city. Actors prowl the edges of the stage, hawking blueberries and “red hot tamales”; jazzy sounds hang in the air; and men and women race into and out of their apartments, crazy with lust or rage or, more usually, both.
Such energy is difficult to maintain for three hours, however, and by the climactic third act, Brown and her actors too often seem to be playing the same notes. The 360-degree staging, so effective in the early, earthier scenes, begins to pull focus from Williams’s vision, which—as is his wont, for better and worse—turns increasingly poetic … if not self-indulgent. Depending on one’s position in the theatre, Blanche’s final, elegiac lines are delivered directly behind the poker table where Stanley and his inebriated cronies are doing their best to play cards unobtrusively.
In other scenes, the crowded set gives Brown little room to stage Williams’s most baldly symbolic devices any way but realistically. The spectral blind woman chanting Flores para los muertos (“Flowers for the dead”) as Blanche clings to the last remnants of her sanity is presented as though she were simply another vender in the Quarter. Later, when Blanche—caught in Stanley’s deadly trap—calls desperately for help, strange figures swarm the stage, enacting attempted rapes and muggings. In his script at this moment, Williams describes “lurid reflections,” “grotesque and menacing form[s]” viewed through a transparent screen; stripped of its otherworldliness, the sudden violence is merely melodramatic, even silly. Better to have cut it.
Of course, when it comes to Williams, a little melodrama may be unavoidable. For the most part, Brown’s production locates the beating hearts within the play’s archetypes. As Blanche and Stanley, respectively, Nancy Murray and Michael Leicht do admirable work breathing fresh life into the iconic roles. Murray’s Blanche possesses a wry sense of humor and a knowing smile to complement her Southern charms; similarly, Leicht balances Stanley’s frank sensuality with calculating eyes and a mirthless grin. In their scenes together, they wage one of the great private wars in all drama, and Murray and Leicht prove more than up to the challenge.
Kate Volpe is luminous in the role of Stella, whose affections are in no small measure the prize for which Blanche and Stanley fight. Volpe leaves no doubt that Stella truly wants to help her older sister, but a faded Mississippi plantation can’t compare to a love nest in New Orleans—each time Leicht crosses the stage, Volpe’s eyes gleam with the irresistible desire of the play’s title … and Murray’s turn increasingly dark.
Todd Krickler gives a touching performance as Stanley’s poker buddy Mitch, a sad sack of a man who nevertheless attracts Blanche’s interest. “That one seems—superior to the others,” she observes upon meeting him, deliberating mistaking Mitch’s awkwardness for sensitivity in the foolish hope that he will rescue her. But Mitch ultimately fails Blanche as Stella must fail her; like Volpe, Krickler makes a pitifully reluctant accomplice to Stanley’s malice, and his betrayal of Blanche is full of self-loathing.
Andrea Bush and Steve Lichtenstein are memorably crass as a pair of feuding neighbors. Dennis Binseel is less successful playing the young newspaper collector whom Blanche famously seduces; Binseel enters with shuffling steps and a sheepish expression, as though his character already knows what’s in store for him. Cami Walker, Timothy Craighead, Ruta Kidolis, and Michael Keating round out the cast.
Brown and Fuzz Roark collaborate on the set and costumes to great effect, and the props team (Brown, Roark, Andrea Bush, and Jacob Hellman) gives a heroic effort; each of the literally hundreds of tiny details seems perfectly considered, with the exception of a breakaway glass bottle that breaks much too easily. Roark’s lighting design is serviceable, though the atmosphere is occasionally too bright, given Blanche’s preference for paper lanterns and dimly lit rooms.
It seems like every time a classic is revived, someone—the director, the artistic director, the dramaturg—announces in the program or a press release that the play has survived the test of time because its characters and conflict are universal. In its production of Streetcar, Spotlighters reminds us that, however clichéd, these sentiments are so oft repeated because they’re true.
A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, located at 817 Saint Paul Street in Baltimore, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., through February 6th. There is one Thursday performance on February 3rd. Tickets are $13 to $20. For more information, visit www.spotlighters.org or call 410-752-1225.