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Women Drive New Rep's 'Streetcar'

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Rick Lombardo

Janie E. Howland, Scenic Design; Frances Nelson McSherry, Costume Design; John Malinowski, Lighting Design; Haddon Kime, Original Music and Sound Design; Erik Diaz, Properties Design; Carola Morrone, Production Stage Manager

CAST (in order of appearance)
Marianna Bassham (Stella Kowalski)
Dee Crawford (Negro Woman)
Maureen Keiller (Eunice Hubbell)
Todd Alan Johnson (Stanley Kowalski)
Bates Wilder (Harold Mitchell "Mitch")
Rachel Harker (Blanche DuBois)
Paul D. Farwell (Steve Hubbell)
Luis Negron (Pablo Gonzales)
Bryce Townsend (Young Collector)
Cristi Miles (Mexican Woman/Nurse)
Michael Kreutz (Doctor)

Performances through October 7, 2007 @ New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, MA.
Box Office 617-923-8487

Tennessee Williams is an American treasure and A Streetcar Named Desire one of his jewels. Celebrating the 60th anniversary of its Broadway debut in 1947, the New Repertory Theatre and Producing Artistic Director Rick Lombardo have polished the old nugget to a brilliant sheen, thanks to a trio of sparkling performances.

The New Rep's 23rd season features great writing by important playwrights, according to Lombardo, all exploring the theme of isolation and connection.  Williams focused on the destructive impact of society on the sensitive individual, an issue that is at the heart of Streetcar. Each of the four major characters is sensitive, isolated in some way, and seeking connection. How they go about it makes this a riveting drama.

Winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize, this powerful play tells the story of Blanche DuBois, visiting her sister and brother-in-law in their New Orleans tenement to escape from personal scandal and the loss of her family home and fortune. Stella has adjusted her sails and adapted to a new life, while Blanche clings to the past and questions Stella's choice. Stanley is both interested in and hostile to their houseguest, playing a constant game of cat-and-mouse with her. Her presence awakens dormant feelings in both of the Kowalskis, creating conflict and building to a stunning climax.

Marianna Bassham (Stella), Rachel Harker (Blanche), and Bates Wilder (Mitch) are well-known to New Rep audiences, but they are on a singular plane as they embody these complex characters. Bassham is part smitten schoolgirl, part wayward woman, and a little bit mother vis-a-vis Stella's brutish husband Stanley. In the relationship with her elder sister Blanche, she runs the gamut of feelings including joy, confusion, frustration, concern, and grief. The two actresses share great chemistry and are convincing as siblings. Bassham's expressions and body language convey Stella's dilemma, caught between the warring family members and trying desperately to bridge the gap.

From the moment she wanders tentatively onto the stage, suitcase in hand, and in scene after scene, Harker commands attention. Her Blanche is delicate (Williams describes the character as moth-like), refined, and sensitive, but also an illusionist as she portrays herself as she thinks she should be. Harker captures the essence of the woman who is fatigued and beaten down, apparently fragile, but she also infuses Blanche with a strength which is grounded in her upbringing and her attendance at the school of hard knocks. It will take more than the common Mr. Kowalski to destroy this lady. However, his abuse eats away at her, as does her alcohol indulgence and the horrific memories of losses she has suffered. Gradually, Harker lets Blanche slip more and more into the magical realm where she feels safe. She is absent from very few scenes in the three-act play and has an immense number of lines, but delivers every one with conviction.

As Stanley's old Army buddy and potential love interest for Blanche, Wilder gives Mitch a humanity that sets him apart from the other card-playing, beer drinking, loutish men who inhabit the neighborhood. His sweetness and gentlemanly qualities make him attractive to Blanche, but only get him so far. Wilder does a great job of taking one step forward and two steps back as his character tries to figure out how to dance her dance, appearing nervous and socially awkward, but soldiering on. It is their story arc that most painfully illustrates the isolation and connection theme as they both admit their need for someone, but the gods (and Stanley) conspire to rend their bond. When Mitch finally confronts Blanche with his hurt and disillusionment, Wilder cuts loose with a force that demonstrates how much restraint he exercises in the rest of his performance.

It is regrettable that Todd Alan Johnson is less than compelling in the role of Stanley. Had I been given an opportunity to cast the part from any list of Boston actors, Johnson would have undoubtedly been my first choice, making his showing all the more disappointing. While he capably portrays Kowalski as a working class stiff who relishes his beer and buddies and bowling, he is lacking the animal magnetism and sensuality that ought to virtually ooze from Stanley. His demeanor is more teasing and taunting than menacing, so that often the audience laughs at inappropriate moments. His inner animal surfaces only when he explodes, and then it is a violent being, not an erotic one. To make matters worse, Johnson stumbled on several lines in the third act when the drama is intensifying palpably.

A Streetcar Named Desire is ultimately a character-driven piece and it is aided by fine supporting performances, notably by Maureen Keiller as the upstairs neighbor and Bryce Townsend as the newspaper boy who Blanche attempts to seduce. Dee Crawford has the occasion to showcase her vocal chops with a few bars of "God Bless the Child" as Director Lombardo makes good use of music to provide New Orleans ambiance. Fiery red background lighting, the sound of sporadic thunder, and a slowly spinning electric fan suggest a hot, sultry setting ripe for something to boil over. Janie E. Howland's detailed scenic design creates the feel of the late 1940's and establishes the cramped living conditions necessary for the conflict among its occupants.

If you've only seen the 1951 movie, be prepared for more realistic, raw emotion and a dissimilar ending (thanks to the Hollywood Production Code then in effect). It is tempting to make comparisons to that iconic film and its stars, but this production has its own passionate approach that is informed by the passage of time and evolution of social mores. Streetcar has always been about Blanche and Stanley, but New Rep shifts the focus, accentuating the former and bringing Stella to the fore, as well. Rachel Harker and Marianna Bassham take the wheel and shine like shimmering white stars.

Photos: Rachel Harker (Blanche); l-r: Rachel Harker (Blanche), Marianna Bassham (Stella) and Todd Alan Johnson (Stanley)

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From This Author Nancy Grossman