Theater review: “A streetcar named desire”, BarnArts | Theater | Seven days

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  • Courtesy of Linda Treash
  • From left to right: Erin Bennett, Aaron Michael Hodge and Katie Cawley

Seats were full for opening night at the Grange Theatre. As warm pre-show conversations buzzed, audiences could gaze over the intricate set constructed by BarnArts volunteers. Every inch of the small stage has been used to hold an entire seedy two-room apartment and a suggestion of the streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter beyond. For A tram called Désir, Tennessee Williams wanted viewers to be inside and out. He wanted them to see the inner and outer selves of the characters as well.

Stella and Blanche DuBois grew up in a small town in Mississippi as Southern beauties, and both became addicted to men. Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, is physically strong and a financially strong member of the working class. Stella accepts that Stanley controls all aspects of the house and that he has the right to hit her. Her job is to produce a baby. And she loves Stanley, whose sexual power is undeniable.

Blanche has also built her life on addiction, presenting herself as a frail creature in need. She needs money, a place to live, and a man to worship her as a beautiful, romantic soul. When she loses her job as a schoolteacher and is forced to leave Mississippi, she moves into Stella and Stanley’s seedy apartment in the rowdy French Quarter. Blanche’s flowery ways irritate Stanley, who discovers that she is lying about almost everything in her past.

Upon meeting a man, Blanche tries her flirting powers to test the response. Its stock in trade is fragility, offering men the possibility of rescuing it. But with her appearance fading and her financial difficulties growing, Blanche becomes desperate. She’s building a fantasy world for herself, but she’s lied so often it’s hard to tell what she knows she’s making up and what is pure illusion.

Stanley’s group of poker buddies includes men as rough as he is, but one has a softer side. Blanche reaches out to charming Mitch, hoping to find a husband who will satisfy her need for a nostalgic version of Southern kindness. Mitch is almost hooked, but Stanley can’t let his friend be tricked. And Stanley can’t let Blanche continue her coquetry without giving her a sexual response: knocking her down and carrying her unconscious to bed.

This is the plot summary of the play that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, but only one element, the play’s violence, stands out today: Stanley hits Stella; Stanley rapes Blanche. Bringing the play to life in the modern age brings audiences and performers face to face with sexual violence that is viewed quite differently now. Williams’ characters can’t connect with audiences like they once did. Their hurts and struggles are harder to feel, their choices harder to forgive.

Director Linda Treash takes on the challenge head-on, staging BarnArts’ production with explicitly contemporary costuming and setting. She doesn’t want to give the characters the excuse of existing in a hazy past. Instead, Blanche arrives with a wheeled suitcase and a designer handbag. Stanley’s bowling jacket appears worn in a fun retro style, and Stella’s chores include recycling beer cans. It’s not a world where men can get away with anything.

Bringing the play into the present requires focusing on the pain that each character feels. This production gives hints of that, but it backs away from the sources of Stanley’s brutality and Blanche’s machinations. Treash makes a noble effort but is ultimately overly cautious, as if worried that showing the raw impulse behind the sexual violence will justify it.

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Katie Cawley (left) and Erin Bennett - COURTESY OF LINDA TREASH

  • Courtesy of Linda Treash
  • Katie Cawley (left) and Erin Bennett

Williams was examining gender and power from the rare perspective of an openly gay man in the 1940s. He saw women with particular clarity, detecting their ability to internalize male judgment, to use weakness as strength, to rationalize their failures as resulting from forces beyond their control. These ideas are always powerful, but the actors must let them burn inside, because theatrical action and speeches alone do not present them. Williams’ genius lies in creating people whose surfaces hide what’s inside.

All the performers in this community theater production showed respect for the play and understanding of their roles. In some exchanges, the intensity of the game stood out. But often, Treash sent the actors relentlessly moving around the compact set. They didn’t stop long enough to listen to each other. And skipping those chances to connect didn’t waste a two-and-a-half-hour play; he shaved off the impact.

Katie Cawley, as Blanche, painted a portrait of incessant need. It was touching, even if its emphasis on the character’s nervousness was somewhat stuck on outward signs, such as shaky, nervous hands. With a slow, visible effort to ward off his demons, Cawley could have shown them more clearly.

As Stanley, Aaron Michael Hodge had the right ease in his body but shunned Stanley’s sexual threat. Hodge showed the character’s confidence as a sense of enjoyment, not a sullen need to prove his strength. His Stanley was keen to outsmart Blanche, more like a riddle to be solved than a threat to be vanquished.

Erin Bennett as Stella demonstrated the character’s true love for Blanche, always tempered by a certain horror at what her sister has become. Sa Stella lit up at Stanley’s attention and accepted his cruelty as natural. Bennett’s quieter work helped Cawley and Hodge modulate theirs to produce compelling moments.

Noor Taher played Mitch with courteous deference to Blanche. Mitch toyed with Blanche’s fantasies, bowing awkwardly when she offered to become her courtier and patiently awaiting the rewards she promised.

An ensemble cast of Doug Abbott, Rob Aspen, Molly Elsasser, Cliff Johnson, Chelsea Paige and Mary Ann Stanford played smaller roles, each proving that local theater sparks heartfelt engagement.

Production moved quickly and, arguably, moved too much. Tensions did not simmer but quickly boiled over; the actors moved without the time to express what propelled them. But these shortcomings in craftsmanship don’t diminish the true achievements of immersing amateur actors in an American theater classic — and finding a sensible way to bring Williams’ characters to modern audiences.

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