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A Streetcar Named Desire

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's well-acted production does justice to Tennessee Williams' brilliant play. logo
Gregory Derelian and Laila Robins
in A Streetcar Named Desire
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Sixty years after it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the virtues of Tennessee Williams' well-constructed and deeply complex A Streetcar Named Desire resonate more than ever, and The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's production, starring Laila Robins as Blanche DuBois and Gregory Derelian as Stanley Kowalski, does justice to Williams' brilliant work.

Unlike in so many of today's plays, Williams' characters show us who they are in speeches born of need, given to another character onstage, rather than by stepping downstage and delivering a lyric monologue. Moreover, each characterization contains depth, nuance and history. And part of Williams' great achievement is that there are victims but no real villains -- not even the violent, uncontrolled Stanley who ultimately destroys Blanche, the faded Missisippi belle visiting her sister Stella (Nisi Strugis) and her "Polack" husband in a last effort to find a way to survive after the family plantation "Belle Reve" was taken for debts.

Director Bonnie J. Monte paces the play with forward-moving tension at the expense of some of the needed Southern languor. She also stages the play in two acts, with one intermission, rather than in the three Williams wrote -- which makes for a very long and sprawling first act. Her creative team is first-rate: Harry Feiner's naturalistic set conveys the claustrophobic heat of a tiny apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans; Bruce C. Auerbach's lighting design subtly brings in the vivid colors of the hot South through fading sunsets over the tenement sky; Hugh Hanson's period costumes elegantly drape the characters in their particular habitats; and Karin Graybash's artful sound design follows Williams' lead smartly and sensitively.

Monte also brings out clear, deep performances from her cast. Derelian portrays Stanley as a charismatic mixture of temper and tenderness; we see the hurt that drives his violence and the drive and force in him that Stella sees, even as we deplore his lack of control and his cruelty. Robins is both regal -- perhaps not the quintessential quality for Williams' mothlike heroine -- and a little shrill when she first appears. We see Blanche's fussy bossiness, but we don't see the pain and vulnerability until much later. Even when she tells Stella that "funerals are pretty, compared to death," she seems more angry than sensitive, and her flirtation with her sister's husband on first meeting him irritates us as much as Stanley. But her deterioration by the end of the play to a frightened, trembling lost little girl pays off magnificently. Robins is heartbreaking describing her tragic marriage and fluttering into madness at the end, leaving much of the audience in tears.

As Stella, Sturgis shines with sweetness and sensuality, and she and Derelian have great passion on stage. Robert Clohessy's Mitch, Blanche's would-be suitor, quietly captures the aching heart in one of nature's true gentlemen. Indeed, one finds oneself wishing Blanche had just gone ahead and slept with him; he would have forgiven her her sordid past in the end. Even the small roles, including Justin Clark as A Young Collector and Jon Barker as a surprisingly gallant Doctor, were finely and subtly played.

While this may not be the quintessential production of Streetcar, it should not be missed by fans of the play -- or fans of great drama and acting.

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