Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tennessee Williams wrote 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in 1947, and Blanche DuBois has depended on the kindness of strangers ever since.

Director Lydia Venables treats her kindly in the production that continues through June 8 at the Woodland Opera House.

The 1951 Marlon Brando film put the focus on the character of Stanley Kowalski, a construction worker who has lured his wife, Stella, away from her rich family to a cramped apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

But the play actually centers around the complicated relationship between sisters Stella (Amy Vyvlecka) and Blanche (Lee Marie Kelly) - both of whom have endured disappointment, loss, pain and hardship - and their struggle to survive.

Stanley (Brien Rife) is a possessive man with a volatile temper, but it's plainly obvious that he and Stella have an active and satisfying sex life that makes the rest bearable. Stella is torn between her love for Stanley and her love for her delicate sister, who needs protecting.

Rife's Stanley is crude, loud and menacing: quick to anger and prone to throw things when he becomes infuriated. But he's obviously madly in love with his wife, as the famous wail proves ('Stella! Stella!'), when he realizes that an upstairs neighbor, Eunice Hubble (Georgann Wallace), has taken Stella in to protect her from Stanley, after a particularly violent outburst.

But Stanley always puts his own wants and needs ahead of everything else, and doesn't realize what he has until he has lost it, and finally commits the unforgivable sin.

Vyvlecka gives Stella a real heart, and makes it obvious how much this woman loves her husband, even when he becomes abusive. We also can see what Stella gets from this dysfunctional relationship, as Vyvlecka adeptly displays her character's sensual attraction to her husband.

Blanche is a fragile soul, who struggles to retain her sanity while her world crumbles around her: the suicide of her young homosexual husband, the loss of her beloved family home at Belle Rive, the loss of her teaching job following an affair with one of her high school students. We get hints of a checkered past as a woman of loose morals. She hides a drinking problem.

But Blanche arrives in New Orleans with a trunk full of frilly clothes to meet all of Stella's friends, and she maintains an air of distracted gentility.

Kelly's performance is superb: She is coquettish, disgusted, fearful, tender, sensual and vulnerable, and she gradually slides into madness.

Dean Shellenberger gives a wonderful performance as Harold Mitchell, a large, shy man who lives with his mother; he's smitten with Blanche, whose like he never has seen before.

He plays the gentle suitor, only to turn his back on her when the truth comes to light. He turns cruel, as he strips away the colored lantern she has placed on a naked lightbulb, and forces her to confront her literal and figurative reality.

Great Collet (Steve Hubbell), Pablo Gonzales (Erik Catalan), Andy Hyun (a young collector), Leslie Kenyon (Matron) and Michail Buse (Doctor) complete the ensemble, each delivering solid performances.

Scenic designer Jeff Kean beautifully portrays not only the cramped, claustrophobic apartment that the Kowalskis share with Blanche, but also - by extending the set to the adjoining off-stage boxes - the French Quarter itself.

In 'Streetcar,' Williams gave the world a gumbo filled with failure, vulnerability, depravity and the helpless fragility of the human mind. Venables has mixed this ingredients with the expertise of a master chef, and served the results with panache.

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