A Streetcar Named Desire drives at the heart

Austene Van gives Kurt Kwan an earful
Paula Keller

Tennessee Williams's plays are rich concoctions that can easily go to your head like a liqueur — sweet, easy to drink in, and able to make you dizzy if you overindulge. One of the keys for any production is to not get so lost in the heady buzz that you leave the audience with a hangover.

Ten Thousand Things' brilliant A Streetcar Named Desire strips away almost all of the play's window dressing to hone in on the four broken characters at the center of the work. The extraneous characters have been removed. No one is walking by on the street. There are no buddies for Stanley other than Mitch; no one at all in whom Stella can find comfort in her darkest moments. These characters have no one except each other — and that's definitely not enough.

By necessity and intent, the company uses limited resources for its productions. Because the show tours to prisons, community centers, and other locations in an effort to reach new audiences with theater, the staging area is relatively tiny — more a suggestion than an actual set. Here, New Orleans is reduced to the Kowalski's two-room apartment. The only escapes are offered by the doors to the bathroom and the steamy street outside.

The tragic core of each of the four characters comes all the more into focus as they remain trapped. Any of these characters could support their own tragedies. Stella is locked in an abusive relationship that has dragged her far from the high society of her youth. Stanley's anger keeps him from truly knowing anyone, while Mitch's lonely soul likely will keep him solitary for the rest of his life. And his desperation pushes him into the arms of Blanche, who isn't right for anyone.

Make no mistake, this is Blanche's story. Her pretensions of civility and class and her tattered sanity make up the core of Williams's play. Austene Van makes us feel every one of Blanche's twitches and twitters. It's a part that demands a certain amount of overacting — the character herself is always putting on a show, and it's not as good she thinks — but the key is balancing that with real insight into Blanche's soul. Van has that.

As her foil, Kris Nelson rages across the stage. Even when quiet, Stanley is like a coiled cobra, ready to strike. While Stella has learned how to read his moods, Blanche is so lost in her own head that she couldn't see a freight train heading toward her. Part of Stanley's frustration is that he can't dominate Blanche in the same way that he can his wife, and that frustration is written all over Nelson's performance.

Elizabeth Grullon centers Stella on her uneasy relationship with Stanley and even shakier one with her sister. Her two worlds should not meet — she has left Blanche and her upbringing behind for the thrill and danger that Stanley represents. Grullon makes it clear that Stella lives in her own delusions, but either can't or won't see the way out.

Which brings us to Mitch, Stanley's kindly friend who gets dragged into the family drama. Kurt Kwan plays him with plenty of unease and lots of outward nerves. He's a perfect "victim" for Blanche, and his absolute loss when he learns the truth is heartbreaking.

The multi-ethnic casting primarily makes the play more universal, though there is some food for thought by having the DuBois sisters played by African-American actors, especially in the relationship between Stanley and Stella and the way Blanche is treated by everyday society.

The impact doesn't just come from cutting characters. Director Randy Reyes and the company keep the energy high and the pace brisk, with the whole show clocking in at less than two hours. Even with that, it never feels rushed, just the natural pace for the story to unfold.

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