Chicago Theatre Review
Kindness of Strangers Dwells in the Suburbs
A Streetcar Named Desire
While miles away from New Orleans, JPAC has staged a very respectable production that brings the heat of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama to Cicero. Ask any serious theatre goer for a list of the best American plays and this drama is sure to rank among his favorites. Indeed, next to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “The Glass Menagerie,” “Streetcar…” is probably William’s best-known and most-produced play from a lengthy canon of scripts that continually proves popular with educational, regional and Broadway theatres.
Inspired by the playwright’s own family experiences and motivated by a trend away from melodrama and a rise of naturalism in the theatre, Williams paints a sad portrait of Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern Belle who falls from grace. Blanche travels from her lost family home in Laurel, Mississippi to spend time with her younger, married sister Stella in New Orleans. An addiction to alcohol and a strong preference for culture and civility mask Blanche’s deeply-rooted guilty secrets, as well as her steady descent into mental illness. She arrives at her sister’s shabby, steamy three-room apartment by way of a series of conveyances, most notably the titular streetcar named Desire. There she faces off against Stanley Kowalski, her sister Stella’s coarse, primal-driven husband who suspects that Blanche is hiding more than a few skeletons in that huge trunk she’s hauled with her. Witnessing this fierce battle waged between a woman trying desperately to survive through self-deception and literary-inspired romantic fantasies and a man motivated solely by his basic needs and animal instincts spells tragedy from the beginning.
Christopher Pazdernik, known around Chicago for his choreography, demonstrates a talent for directing, skillfully staging and guiding his actors through this often difficult drama. For the most part, his actors seem to understand what motivates their characters and why they react the way they do. Pazdernik is most successful with his two female leads, Blanche and Stella, as well as in his direction with Mitch, Stanley’s poker-playing friend. Stanley’s impulses, however, sometimes waver and feel a bit contrived; but overall the character’s primitive persona dominates his presence on stage.
Kirstin Franklin, who physically resembles a young Bette Midler, is superb as Blanche. She must be commended, first and foremost, for maintaning her energy throughout the two-and-a-half hour drama, for her proficiency with the southern dialect, and for a solid mastery of Blanche’s endless amount of dialogue. In addition, Ms. Franklin is savvy as to how Blanche’s melodramatic histrionics contrast with the naturalism displayed by the rest of the cast. Anslee Burns wins the audience’s heart as Stella. That she’s caught in the middle between the love for and needs of both her sister and husband make her a sympathetic pawn in this battle of wills. Ms. Burns makes her Stella sweet and lovable, but equally as complex a character as Franklin’s multi-layered Blanche.
Brian Zane is solid as Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. His fascination with and attraction to Blanche show that, in many ways, he’s her kindred spirit. Both characters are loners yearning for the romanticism and chivalry of a bygone era. Zane truly gets it right every step of the way and his journey, while still skating along the thin ice of nostalgia, is sadly realistic. Carl Herzog has many good moments as Stanley, but sometimes the drama seems to spring out of the blue. In fairness, this is not an easy role to play and it’s difficult to erase Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal from one’s memory. But this young Herzog does a commendable job and is someone to watch in the coming years.
Michael Nedza does double duty. As an actor, he nicely plays the cameo role of the Doctor, whose gentility prompts the play’s most quoted line: “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” His set design demonstrates a talent for making real what Williams has only described in words. The problems with Nedza’s purposefully claustrophobic set are an unnecessary half-wall stuck between the kitchen and bedroom, as well as a giant trunk lid. They block much of the audience’s view. Otherwise, his set and period accents adequately say 1947 French Quarter. However, Lindsay Prerost, whose attention to detail has been evident in costumes for other productions, ignores the style and silhouette of this time period. Blanche’s costumes are jarring, from ill-fitting dresses with short hemlines to an ’80’s pant suit. Only Blanche’s voluminous dressing gown seems appropriate. Stella’s baby bump was unconvincing and Stanley’s appearance in a sport coat and dress slacks didn’t match his character.
Seeing a well-directed, professionally acted production of anything by Tennessee Williams is always a welcome privilege. Given this young director’s passion and the hard work of his youthful cast, the playwright’s sad characters live once again sharing their poetic story in this fine production. In so many ways, this streetcar takes audiences on a memorable and cathartic journey to enlightenment.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Sept. 13-28 by the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College, Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 708-656-1800 or at http://www.jpactheatre.com/.
Additional information about this and other area shows is available at http://www.theatreinchicago.com