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A Streetcar Named Desire

David Cromer's take on Tennessee Williams' classic drama practically overwhelms the viewer with its brute physicality. logo
Natasha Lowe, Matt Hawkins, and Stacy Stoltz
in A Streetcar Named Desire
(© Writers' Theatre)
Award-winning director David Cromer's take on Tennessee Williams' legendary American play,A Streetcar Named Desire, now at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, is the most forceful staging of the classic play I've ever seen. And by forceful, I mean what overwhelms the viewer in this production is its brute physicality.

For example, the nearby trains that pass by are represented by flashing headlights and a rumble so low it shakes the whole theater. Or take the Act I moment when Stanley Kowalski (an extremely muscular Matt Hawkins) and his wife Stella (Stacy Stolz) retreat to their bedroom to make love. Cromer has the bedroom right there in front of us, allowing the audience to see Stanley's bare back and buttocks in dim light, moving over Stella as a dialogue scene continues elsewhere.

Later, the same bed is used for a tableau that's not in the script -- one of two discreetly naked men, representing the long-ago memory of Stella's older sister, Blanche DuBois (Natasha Lowe) discovering her young husband is gay.

Cromer and set designer Collette Pollard and lighting designer Heather Gilbert have reconfigured the Writers' Theatre into a deep, narrow thrust shape, with the raised stage touching the risers of the audience seats at the outermost end, placing many of the 125 or so viewers just inches from the actors. When Stanley pulls his shirt off -- which he does frequently -- you really can see the sweat, and when he lets loose in a rage, it's savage and terrifying. For the most part, this sort of extreme intimacy works well for the play, although there are moments when it can feel distracting.

In addition, Cromer has succeeded in making some of the work's most familiar lines and casual exposition fresh, including Blanche's impassioned description of the loss of the DuBois plantation or her understanding that would-be boyfriend Mitch (Danny McCarthy) once lost a young love just as she did.

But the director has made some curious choices that undercut the production's effectiveness. For instance, no one in the entire cast speaks with a southern accent except Blanche, despite the New Orleans setting. One suspects Cromer wants to isolate Blanche every way he can, even vocally. But it's really odd when Stella speaks without a hint of the South in her voice, and Stanley often sounds like he's from The Bronx. Similarly, the scenic design, chiefly rendered in white wood, eschews any recognizable New Orleans references such as wrought iron, louvered shutters or ceiling fans.

A great deal of the show's success is also due to Lowe, who revels (in the best way) in Blanche's deceptions, both intentional and unconscious. Doe-eyed, full-lipped, strawberry blonde, and slim but curvaceous, Lowe is one of those women whose most striking features work best together onstage. She's quite mesmerizing, especially in Janice Pytel's elegant tailored costumes.

Hawkins' intensity is dazzling, but he reveals Stanley's explosive fury and hair-trigger temper so early on that the performance has nowhere to go. Stoltz renders Stella with great compassion, and makes it clear Stella has made her own choices. She isn't just someone's baby sister, but a woman who had a past before she met Stanley and a present she's fully aware of.

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