Woodward Shakespeare Festival offers up a hot and steamy version of the Tennessee Williams classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And that’s not just because the temperature was north of 100 degrees as the play got underway Thursday for opening night. Williams’ searing prose, an inspired production design and a committed cast combine for a combustible production.
Actually, it would be hard to think of a more perfect title to stage outside in July during a Fresno heat wave. The hardscrabble residents of Elysian Fields Avenue, the fancifully named New Orleans street that is the setting of the play, don’t exactly have central air, after all. Sweat and stickiness are recurring motifs. Thanks to director Maggie McClellan and set designer Chris Campbell’s inspired setting — a multi-level recreation of the humble two-room Kowalski apartment, all rough and ramshackle, we get a sense not only of the claustrophobic feelings engendered when Stella Kowalski’s big sister, Blanche Dubois, comes for an extended visit, but also the sharp tang of the surrounding neighborhood.
(It’s also worth noting that the temperature in the park after 8 p.m. on a 100-degree-plud day isn’t really that bad at all — maybe a first hour of slight stickiness, but by 9 p.m. it really is quite comfortable.)
There are three powerhouse characters as written by Williams in “Streetcar,” and each of them gets their due in terms of acting in this Woodward production. Erin Baird is a stellar Stella, finding in the role both her character’s deference to sister and husband and headstrong, sexually charged sense of empowerment. Eric Wayne Orum, as a full-throttle Stanley, has powerful moments of terror and tenderness. Together they have a raw, primal chemistry.
And Gabriela Lawson, as the iconic Blanche, gives us a boisterous, flirtatious and deeply disturbed performance, taking us down her character’s path of sadness and mental deterioration. (Lawson disappears physically into her role so totally that I simply didn’t recognize her when she first walked on stage.)
When Blanche shows up on her sister’s doorstep, she’s desperate. She’s lost the family home, Belle Reve, which belonged to the two sisters. Frightened of her fading looks and skittish around her sister’s husband, whom she’s never met, Blanche tries to hold on to what she perceives as her Southern gentility even as the skeletons in her closet start to rattle.
Through it all, Williams’ shattering prose pulses ever forward, tackling such themes as the Old South vs. the New, new conflicts over gender roles, issues of sexuality, and a conflict between the overt Romanticism of Blanche and the unforgiving Social Realism of Stanely. (I seem to remember writing a paper about that last one in high school.)
There are so many strong points to this production, which is directed with passion and exactitude by McClellan. (She also designed the excellent costumes.) Sometimes it’s the smallest of touches that ring truest, such as the way the naked light bulb in the bedroom swings after Blanche’s genteel covering is ripped off. At other times it’s the big, expected moments that shine: when Blanche delivers her gripping account of her husband’s death, for example.
The ensemble has some fine moments. In one of his best local performances, Michael J. Peterson has a firm handle on Mitch, the suitor (and probable last chance) for Blanche. And Guinevere J. Thelin is a standout in several smaller roles.
There were some opening-night wobbles. The transitions between scenes just didn’t seem as polished or effective as they could be in terms of lighting design. And at times the recorded music overwhelmed the actors. (At other times, particularly with Blanche, I found myself wishing that the volume could be reduced a few ticks.)
I have one significant criticism of the direction — and it’s something that affects the effectiveness of Lawson’s portrayal of Blanche. McClellan in her extended director’s notes on the festival’s website notes that in her analysis of the play, Blanche should be much farther along the path of complete mental breakdown when she first appears. “She should barely be able to carry off any semblance of normality and should slip into paranoia and psychotic behavior much earlier than is generally portrayed,” McClellan writes.
It’s an interesting perspective, and Lawson certainly delivers on the concept. But I think it hampers her from finding the full range of her character in the first act. We lose some of Blanche’s sweeping Southern elegance and charm — her calculated ability to use her own exaggerated mannerisms (and cunning ability with language) to exact an advantage over an adversary. (Which subtly alters the playing field between her and Stanley.)
But I also appreciate the bold choices made in this production — and the commitment with which Lawson sees them through. You can say the same for the entire dedicated cast. The result is a “Streetcar” that fires up an already feverish summer.