Hardly a mention of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 classic can be made without a reference to its iconic film counterpart. Don’t remember the film? Good. It’s better to have a head free of any nagging comparisons, because this production, headlining this year’s third annual Tennessee Williams Festival, stands firmly on its own, with splendid creative touches and stellar performances.
Under a canopy of wooden window frames and clotheslines, Blanche DuBois shows up on the New Orleans doorstep of her sister Stella and her unfriendly brother-in-law Stanley. Escaping her past in Laurel, Mississippi, she’s come to live with Stella and Stanley now that Belle Reve, the family estate, has been lost. As put off as Blanche is with her sister’s dingy downstairs flat, she’s even more displeased with Stanley. His lowbrow poker games clash with Blanche’s highbrow constructions. Stella finds herself stuck in the middle, crazy for her husband but careful to protect her big sister’s mental fragility. Blanche, always leading with her feminine charm, sees nothing wrong with a little harmless fibbing if it bolsters her delicately spun illusions. Stanley, dangerous when brought to anger, has no tolerance for uppity bullshit. Things are bound to come to a head.
The cast is headed up by Sophia Brown, all sweet tea and airs and graces as Blanche -- through to her tragic exit. She’s desperately adrift in the world, preferring the camouflage of shadows to the unforgiving light of day, and you have no doubt that her steamer trunk full of pretense shields a crushing isolation that Brown embodies nimbly, striking a balance between a determined, flirtatious aggression and the frantic giggles that give her away.
Nick Narcisi brings a magnetic energy to the role of Stanley. Narcisi gives Stanley a boyish, cocky charm that makes you understand why Stella would stay with him, even though he takes pleasure in trying to break Blanche. He’s all primal instinct, exerting his power when he can, finding comfort in the reliability of his wife’s affection.
Lana Dvorak’s Stella is willing to put up with Stanley’s occasional abuses in exchange for a potent sex life and a sense of stability. With her husband and sister both demanding her allegiance, Dvorak’s is a layered performance in tender moments with Stanley and steadfast devotion to Blanche, trying like hell to pacify them both, and devastating in the end.
Blanche catches the eye of Mitch, one of Stanley’s poker buddies who looks after his sick mother. He’s a veritable prince compared to the other beer guzzlers in the play, who think nothing of slapping their women around from time to time when the mood strikes them. Blanche and Mitch have shared sorrow in disastrous past loves, and Spencer Sickmann comes off as a genuinely nice guy, nervous as a teenager when they first start to show an interest in each other.
Tim Ocel’s direction paces from scene to flawlessly laid-out scene with a keen understanding of the script and the characters. James Wolk’s superbly imagined scenic design conjures a working-class neighborhood that takes on many moods thanks to Sean Savoie’s gorgeous lighting. Amanda Werre’s sound design peppers the play with the evocative din of passing trains and thunderstorms, and Michele Siler’s costumes are pitch perfect. The production also benefits greatly from an original score from locally based pianist and composer Henry Palkes that makes it hard to imagine the show without it. It’s an impeccable production all the way around that shouldn’t be missed.