Saturday, October 12, 2019

A Journey Like No Other – Dramaworks’ Stunning Production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Palm Beach Dramaworks has skillfully and compellingly taken on an American theatrical masterpiece, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  This leading regional theatre company has been in discussion for years debating the readiness to tackle such a monumental play.  Now was the time.  With their capable staff, technical crew and resources but particularly in the indefatigable hands of Director J. Barry Lewis, it was felt that this timeless play could be successfully mounted with the right cast.  No worries there, as they have brought together actors who deliver with every fiber of their being.  It is a rite of passage for the audience, too, as the drama is high pitched and gut wrenching.  

It is a play for all times but perhaps especially these times, when cultural warfare is underway.  Streetcar is a battlefield where the weak are ravaged by the powerful, where ethereal aspirations are bludgeoned by the brute force of animal spirit and cultural ignorance.  How Williams could be so prescient is the question I ask myself.  Did he see the Norman Rockwell American Dream devolving after WW II and extrapolate into this new reality, perhaps his greatest play?

When Stanley Kowalski makes his appearance, he throws a blood-stained package of meat to his wife, Stella, like a hunter’s “kill”.  It immediately establishes one half of the dramatic equation in the play.  The other half is the arrival of Stella’s sister, Blanche, who appears from a different era, the antebellum south, in “shock and disbelief” as she tries to negotiate the symbolic streetcar “Desire,” which runs along Cemetery Road, to find Stella’s home in “Elysian Fields,” an ironic description of a place Blanche could never image as her sister’s home.  Ironic too that she comes as a faded shadow of her former self.

So the stage is set for the eventual confrontation between these two highly charged, but unequal forces.  It is Stanley who says to Blanche at the climax “We've had this date from the beginning.”  Williams seems to posit that the Meek will not inherit the Earth, but instead a dystopian world of carnal pleasure and poker will prevail, full of pain and alienation. 

Williams’ play is set apart from other American classics by its language.  He was a poet at heart and to listen to the dialogue is akin to being at a free verse poetry reading, the language exquisite in its own right.

Emblazoned in our collective memory of the play – in fact initially I overheard an audience member comment (“I don’t remember it that way”) – is the film version with Marlon Brando reprising his Broadway role as Stanley and Vivian Leigh reprising her role as Blanche from the London production.  But those memories quickly fade watching the PBD version; director J. Barry Lewis’ textualist interpretation of Williams’ work – faithful to the author’s intention -- establishes a powerful, moving production, with superb acting.

Knowing Kathy McCafferty’s outstanding performances in past PBD productions Outside Mullingar and Little Foxes, I had expected her to take on the pivotal role of Blanche with a sense of ownership.  And she does.  Perhaps at first one might make mental comparisons to Vivian Leigh but McCafferty quickly dispels such thoughts and makes the case for why live theatre is so different than two dimensional movie depictions. 

Annie Grier, Kathy McCafferty

McCafferty’s Blanche is the nucleus around which the other major roles orbit, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch.  Their interactions become exceptional by McCafferty’s catalytic performance.  She walks a fine line between fantasy and reality, at times fighting to retain her dignity confronting Stanley but as the play evolves, McCafferty is in a losing battle, taking long baths “to calm her nerves” and slipping into dream-like reveries about her one husband of long ago, a teenage marriage, a boy who was denounced as a degenerate.  She danced with him to the Varsouviana polka the night of his death and those reveries in her mind play fragments of the music, and the suicide shot that killed him.  He was a poet; he was cultured; he was sensitive: all the qualities that modern life has increasingly marginalized.  Blanche lives in expectation of finding those traits again in a man who will offer her love and protection, in spite of a past she wants to forget.

McCafferty leans on her character’s flirtatious inclinations in her dealings with Mitch and even Stanley.  She can turn on the charm and sees it as her last bastion of youth.  That ability painfully reveals a window into her past though when a young man (John Campagnuolo, his PBD debut) comes to collect for the newspaper.  Alone in the apartment, she toys with him but finally says to the bewildered young man: “Young man!  Young, young, young man!  Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?  Well, you do honey lamb!  [Brief pause.]  Come here.  I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!  [Without waiting for him to accept, she crosses quickly to him and presses her lips to his.]  Now run along, now, quickly!  It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good – and keep my hands off children.”  It is an act of remembrance of things past and highly effective in the overall drama, foreshadowing what is to come.

Williams increasingly turns from the early realism in the play to symbolism to make his statement about Blanche’s deteriorating condition and obsession with death such as the figure of the Mexican seller of flowers for the dead.  Williams even comments on his dramatic style through Blanche: “I don’t want realism.  I want magic.”

McCafferty has the difficult role of portraying Blanche already on the edge, her incredulity at having arrived at this place, at this moment of her life, and then devolving into complete fantasy.  She moves between emotional levels like a speeding elevator, sensitive to sound, light, sadness, regret, but carrying some fantastical hopefulness.  Her erratic persona plays out as if she is in a play of her own making.  Director J. Barry Lewis choreographs her stage movements like a trapped animal while emphasizing her melodramatic tendencies.  This is clearly a once in a lifetime role for an actress of unparalleled talent.  The audience is clearly mesmerized by McCafferty’s performance, which by play’s end left everyone breathless!

Blanche’s first introduction to Stanley is through a photograph her sister, Stella, hands her of him in his army uniform, Stella cautioning her sister that she shouldn’t expect him to be like boys they knew back home at Belle Reve which was the plantation where they grew up and was squandered by the family, leaving nothing.  Stella comments that he is “a different species.”

Danny Gavigan, Annie Grier
Danny Gavigan, a PBD newcomer, has played Stanley Kowalski before and he brings with him that experience as well as the necessary physicality to play the role.  He is a terrifying presence on stage, swallowing up the space and dwarfing everyone around him.  Stanley is given to sudden bursts of rage, constantly feeling he’s being conned by Blanche, and is intent on exposing and destroying her.  Yet as much as he is the alpha male, Gavigan cries out “Stella!” while in a prostrate position.  He is totally dependent on Stella loving him, although he is ruthless in his behavior toward her.  It is hard to feel much sympathy toward him, but his acting is remarkable in portraying that sexually dominant male who refuses to let anyone best him, in bowling, at work and even when fighting in the war which perhaps affected his aggressiveness.  But it is his nemesis Blanche who threatens him by stepping between him and his wife, lying about her past and weaving fantastical tales which literally brings out his savage side.

And it is on his terms that Annie Grier (PBD debut) playing Stella loves him.  Grier’s own web site mission statement is particularly relevant to playing Stella: “to tell stories that reveal the human condition as the beautiful, tragic and hilarious mess that it is”.  She’s torn between supporting her sister, even in some of her fantasies, and placating Stanley.  She is the go-between.  Neither work in the end and Grier’s performance of her failed attempt is sadly reflected in the arms of her neighbor, Eunice, as Blanche is led away to an institution.  Fundamentally, Grier’s Stella is captivated by Stanley’s brutal sexuality.  She gives a compelling performance steeped in joy of her impending motherhood and palpable pain in not resolving the hatred between the two people she loves most. 

Brad Makarowski, Kathy McCafferty

One character bridges both worlds of Stanley and Blanche.  Brad Makarowski (PBD debut) plays Mitch, a well-meaning but flawed character.  Makarowski portrays Mitch as “one of the boys” but he is more than that, devoted to his mother who is dying, and although having served with Stanley in the army and being a poker buddy, also has an artistic bent, carrying a silver cigarette case with an inscription by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “And if God choose, / I shall but love thee better—after—death.”  This deeply impresses Blanche, who was an English teacher who had to leave her town in disgrace. 

Until Blanche’s past is cruelly and crudely revealed by Stanley, Blanche and Mitch are drawn to each other, her seeing him as her last chance and he seeing her – with his mother dying – as a possible wife. (Blanche: “I think you have a great capacity for devotion.”) Makarowski negotiates a delicate dance with Blanche, wanting to be a “gentleman” but having desires.  He is in the climactic scene with Blanche when she tells him about the death of “the boy” – her husband. 

Although the long monologue is Blanche’s scene, Makarowski’s pain in hearing the story culminates in his moving closer to her, drawing her into her arms, and saying “you need somebody.  And I need somebody, too.  Could it be – you and me, Blanche?”  Finally he kisses her.  Williams’ stage notes say “Her breath is drawn and released in long, grateful sobs,” Blanche says the last line of the 2nd act, “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly!”

The boom is lowered in Act 3.  Mitch confronts her about her past after being a no-show for her birthday celebration.  Stanley has told all the true gossip about Blanche to Stella, but Mitch in particular.  At first Blanche fantasizes he has come back to apologize for being late for their date, but no, Mitch is there to utter the words that break Blanche forever: “You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.” 

At the conclusion Blanche is carted off in an enigmatic haze (here she delivers the iconic line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”) past another poker game.  While this scene plays out Mitch mostly stares down at the poker table in shame and anger until finally as Blanche passes by he takes a swing at Stanley and then returns to stare at the table.  It is his tragedy too.  Although a more secondary role, Makarowski makes it memorable.

What is played out between Stanley and Stella – a tempestuous, but devoted relationship -- is also reflected in a minor and sometimes humorous subplot between their upstairs neighbors, Eunice and Steve, played convincingly by PBD alumni, Julie Rowe and Gregg Weiner.  The occasional violence of their relationship foreshadows the Kowalskis. 

Rounding out the cast is Thomas Rivera; Suzanne Ankrum (PBD debut); Renee Elizabeth Turner; and Michael Collins.

Although this is a long, serious drama, with two brief intermissions, it flies by, a testament to J. Barry Lewis’ direction.  There is humor embedded in parts and Lewis is careful to allow a pregnant pause for the humor to sink in emitting some laughter from the audience.  One of the sound effects is a sudden screeching cat.  Blanche’s nervous system is always on the edge and at one cat screech she even leaps into Stanley’s arms.  Such humor helps makes this masterpiece a true human tragedy.

The scenic design by Anne Mundell anchors the entire production.  Most notably is the openness of the stage.  There is no place for Blanche to hide, from people, sounds, and light.  It is a cold hard set, not the Belle Reve of her youth.  It is a masterpiece of set design and literally takes your breath away when entering the theatre.

Costume design by Brian O’Keefe focused on pastel colors to contrast to the set and while the working men of the play are dressed as they would be in post WW II New Orleans, either coming home from the factory, or for playing poker, or, for Mitch, a suit and bow tie going out on a date with Blanche.  The big challenge is the number of dresses Blanche required, with several costume changes right on stage.  The design and colors speak southern belle, and especially Blanche’s white lace gloves.

Lighting by Kirk Bookman bathes the stage in dappled light, allowing the time and date to dictate colors and intensity.  Festive lights dangle from the top of the stage.  This is decidedly New Orleans.

As the Kowalskis live near a railroad, the rumble of a train is occasionally heard and this is just one of the many effects sound designer Abigail Nover (PBD debut) introduces.  Mostly it is the sounds of the city, New Orleans music, at the time the jazz capitol of the world, and the haunting refrains of the Varsouviana that are heard during Blanche’s reveries (in a minor key when she internalizes it and a major key when she tells the story to others).  J. Barry Lewis makes the most of these sounds during the most dramatic moments, particularly a train rumbling by.

PBD’s relatively new stage manager, Debi Marcucci does an exceptional job in managing this extraordinarily complicated play.

There are not enough superlatives to commend this production.  Take a theatrical ride of a lifetime on A Streetcar Named Desire.  Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production is live theatre at its best.

Cast photos by Samantha Mighdoll