“A Streetcar Named Desire” – Taut, Tense and Well-Told at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

4 and half roseys copy2013_Play_images_Streetcar_5x7Bear with me. I’m going to start with the set, which says everything you need to know about this compelling production and why I felt as though I were privileged to witness Tennessee Williams’ classic human car crash in slow motion.

The New Orleans tenement building designed by Christopher Acebo, a stylized cross-section of sorts, is onion-skin transparent, providing a more-than-vaguely uncomfortable voyeuristic notion that heightens the sense of immediacy as well as a metaphoric sense of place.

The set also seems to foreshadow that no one who dares enter this world can escape being seen for what and who they truly are. There’s no place to hide.

Which may be why the character of Stanley Kowalski appears so comfortable as the king of this Lilliput castle. He is most certainly crass, crude, uncouth and controlling, and unapologetically abusive, but he is also as transparent as the set itself. There’s no attempt by him at pretense. If he wants something/someone, he takes it/her; if he’s angry, he rages, throws stuff, smashes stuff. He can be a real bastard, but at least he’s refreshingly real; in contrast with his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois (Kate Mulligan), that’s a big deal. And, in the deft hands of Danforth Comins, at times Stanley is nearly likeable.

The play begins with Blanche’s arrival in the normally tumultuous household of Stanley and Stella (Nell Geisslinger). On a supposed leave of absence from her teaching post, she’s grappling with the emotional blow of losing the family’s Mississippi plantation to foreclosure. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the grappling she’ll soon be doing with Stanley—literally and figuratively—who suspects she might have cheated his wife of some of the remaining fortune.

Her tangle of dark and sordid secrets unravels under Stanley’s scrutiny, even as she romances Stanley’s co-worker Harold Mitchell (Jeffrey King).

While Blanche’s descent is swift and unstoppable, Mulligan’s sure grip on her character and director Liam Moore’s command of the pace ensures that the angst-filled moments ripen slowly and with minute detail and nuance. That’s a great gift to both the audience and the actors.

The great challenge in producing this piece is, of course, the giant shadow cast by Marlon Brando, who defined the role both on Broadway and in the film. How could anyone forget his haunting and plaintive cry of “Stella,” begging her to take him back after his drunken and abusive rage?

Comins does well to avoid the minefield of imitation, managing to flesh out a Stanley who is as believable as Stella’s lover as he is Blanche’s tormentor.

This is a straightforward and welcome production that does great justice to a taut, tight and tension-filled Tennessee Williams’ script that remains as resonant today as when it opened in 1947.

You can see it at the Bowmer Theatre through Nov. 2.

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