The play’s title refers to an old, rattletrap vehicle. But at Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, “A Streetcar Named Desire” moves like a bullet train, racing across the Grandel Theatre stage at the speed of life.
This is how the mainstage event at a theater festival is supposed to feel: big, thrilling, welcoming to anyone who enjoys a good story with fascinating characters. “Streetcar” includes two of the best: Blanche DuBois, a desperate woman clutching at shreds and shadows of happiness, and her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, a dynamo powered by self-confidence and glands.
When Blanche — out of a job, money and hope — comes to stay with her sister Stella and Stanley in their cramped French Quarter flat, conflict is inevitable. Obviously, it won’t be a fair fight. But the astute director Tim Ocel makes it a fascinating one.
As Stanley, Nick Narcisi is more predatory hawk than raging bull, swooping down on Blanche with sharp talons. Lean and good-looking, Narcisi embodies the touch of grace that’s too often missing from portrayals of Stanley (though that was certainly key to the performance delivered by the young actor who originated the role and immortalized it on film, Marlon Brando). Narcisi lets us see why Stella (sweetly played by Lana Dvorak) loves him and why Blanche is as vulnerable to him as she is.
He’s capable not only of terrifying her, but of surprising her as well.
And as Blanche — exhausted yet trying hard, seductive yet romantic, a tough survivor coping with mental illness — Sophia Brown is just astonishing. She looks youthful but her eyes go flat; she speaks in a low register that puts meat on her Southern accent. This Blanche may lose herself in memory or fantasy (sometimes in the middle of a conversation) but she’s nevertheless an intelligent, educated woman. She might have been a fine English teacher if she weren’t also unhinged.
When Brown carefully arranges her legs to tempt Stanley’s naïve buddy Mitch (Spencer Sickmann, open-hearted and open-faced) or teases Stanley with an atomizer, she reminds us that Blanche learned to flirt in a world where that skill counted. But she doesn’t live in that world anymore. And she can’t abide the alternative. Blanche barely disguises her loathing for the Kowalskis’ shabby flat (she gags when she comes in) or for Stanley’s vulgar language and habits. But she loves her sister. “Don’t — don’t hang back with the brutes,” she pleads.
But Stella, happily pregnant, makes her way in the real world. That’s not an option for Blanche, who longs for magic instead of realism. We watch her shatter, piece by chipped piece, until she’s a heap on the floor, barely able to aim one last charm offensive at a gentlemanly doctor (David Wassilak).
The show is beautifully designed, with an evocative set by James Wolk, apt postwar costumes by Michele Siler and subtle lighting by Sean Savoie. Composer Henry Palkes shadows the drama with a moving, original score.
“Streetcar” is the centerpiece of the festival, which involves fewer elements than in the past. Apparently, Carrie Houk the executive director, decided to put the effort where it would count most — into a strong, traditional production of a play that appeals to lots of people, not just the cognoscenti. It’s the smart move, a choice that sets up the festival for wider audiences and a promising future.