Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Streetcar Named Desire – Twilight Nails An American Classic

Lynn Greene (Stella) and Dorina Toner (Blanche)
By Tina Arth

Twilight Theater Company is offering a hard-hitting, balanced production of one of the most powerful plays in the history of American theater, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Director Tony Bump actually turns the limited space/facilities at Twilight into an asset – without the distractions of transparent walls, rotating stages, hectic street scenes, and elaborate special effects, the  audience is forced to focus only on the often stunning intensity of the actors’ performances. The tiny size of the theater assures that the audience catches even the subtlest body language and facial expressions, and gives the huge moments even more impact than they would have in a larger production.

Even folks who are not familiar with Streetcar know its clichés, like Stanley’s frantic “Stella! Stella!!” and Blanche’s oft-quoted “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” The story revolves around Blanche Dubois’ decline into madness as she desperately tries to reclaim the faded glory of her life and family, Stella Kowalski’s passionate embrace of the only reality that works for her, and Stanley Kowalski’s brutally direct approach to protecting what is “his” (wife, home, liquor, bathroom, and even a strange dignity). There are no black hats and white hats, no unambiguously good or evil characters (although Stella comes close). Instead, there are way more than fifty shades of grey – a story that leaves the audience shaken by not only the fierce drama but by the absence of any neat conclusion.

Dorinda Toner’s portrayal of “Blanche” is a key factor in the production’s overall take on the story. Toner’s “Blanche” is no fading Southern belle, inspiring the audience’s undiluted sympathy as her world collapses around her. Instead, we see a delusional but devious, bigoted and manipulative woman who meets her match in Stanley, whose hardheaded grasp on reality contrasts so starkly with her universe. At the end, while we are angered and saddened by Stanley’s behavior, we feel no real regret at Blanche’s betrayal, and cannot blame Stanley for her mental decomposition. There is also not much to like in Ted Hartsook’s Stanley; his animal magnetism (lots of it!) is leavened by his crude, abusive, and often cruel behavior. Even his deep passion for Stella comes across as weakness – it is not so much love as need that brings him to his knees when she leaves him.  

The other two characters who demand mention are Lynn Greene (Stella) and Colin Trevor (Harold Mitchell). Greene walks the fine line of loyalty between her explosive husband and her increasingly demented sister, shifting sides as the moment demands. The sexual chemistry between Greene and Hartsook is palpable and convincing, and helps to justify her bond with her husband. Trevor’s performance is subtle; the slight stammer defines him as the sensitive underdog in the male ensemble, while his clenched fists and shaking shoulders convey a world of confusion, hurt, and anger at both Blanche and Stanley.

If I have one complaint, it is that the audience (many of them closely acquainted with both the play and the actors) laughed too much at lines that, while ironic, were neither written nor played for humorous effect. I am slightly guilty myself – I could not suppress a quick laugh at the completely unintended contemporary relevance when Stanley says of Blanche that  “She is as famous in Laurel as if she was the President of the United States, only she is not respected by any party.”

Set design (by director Bump, Assistant Director Sarah Fuller, and lighting designer Robin Pair) is detailed and efficient, creating just the right ambience and allowing for complex staging in the limited space. Chris Byrne’s costumes, especially for Toner, are wonderful at capturing the play’s shifting moods. Overall, this is one of the most solid productions I’ve seen, and definitely worth the short drive to North Portland. I recommend buying tickets early – a production of this quality should sell out most performances.

Twilight Theater Company’s A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, February 19th,  with performances at 8 P.M. on February 10, 11, 16, 17, 18 and 3:00 P.M. on February 12 and 19.

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