Hard Times in The Big Easy
Before the action even begins in this wrenching and electric show, Michael Hoover's set broadcasts which way things are going to go. The chipped, cracked, and rundown square footage of Casa de Kowalski is suitably depicted, with a twist--the place is severely slanted, the floor askew, drawing the eye inexorably down, down.
For those just emerging from a six-decade cultural coma, Tennessee Williams's drama concerns itself with the doings of once-aristo Southern sisters Stella and Blanche, as well as Stella's coarse brute of a husband, Stanley. Blanche, now a schoolteacher, arrives in New Orleans and firmly announces herself as too good for her sister's social milieu--especially the hard-drinking, shirt-eschewing Stanley. Things subsequently go sharply downhill for Blanche, who has been trailing scandalous secrets for some time.
Stacia Rice plays Blanche in this Zach Curtis-directed production with assurance, projecting brittle coquettishness and maintaining a firm ignorance of reality. The key to the role is that Blanche herself is continuously acting, and Rice conveys the delicacy of the character's artifice as well as the bottomless desperation that feeds it. She does a lot of acting with her eyes, alternately glancing about as though in fear of discovery then staring widely, as if she has caught a harrowing glimpse of the fate that awaits her.
While Blanche DuBois has become a metaphor for a certain kind of shattered perversion of already nutty social norms, sister Stella is the nexus. She's the one who has lived in both worlds of Williams's construct, from plantation gentility to N'awleans working-class humility, and her earthy sexuality gives the show a potent magical charge. Carolyn Pool takes on the role's wide range of emotions without striking false notes. She's particularly fascinating dealing with Steve Sweere's Stanley, and she knowingly navigates the tides of lust and condescension that comprise Stella's approach to him.
Any actor who would portray Stanley Kowalski on the stage would surely prefer not to be reminded of a recently deceased husky-sized thespian who did quite well in the role a very long time ago. And so we shall oblige, with the exception of mentioning that Sweere thankfully does not try to duplicate the aforementioned performance. It helps that Sweere is a big guy, and he crashes about, slams things, and throws furniture with aplomb. He has the hulking presence and seething anger that Stanley requires, also the moments of simplistic regret and villainy both base and petty. I found myself fairly shocked in the final scene, when Sweere played Stanley as not hiding his guilt, and apparently not even thinking of what he has done.
These are very solid actors and, even if last Saturday night there were a few visible seams that should be worked out later in the run, they grab right onto the undercurrent of American voodoo that runs through the play. It jams together the hot wires of sex, class, illusion, and transgression--then makes everything take place in close quarters with lots of booze. Rice delivers with honeyed tones the crucial lines of the play. Talking to Stanley, she says she knows he would never fall for a "witch of a woman casting her spell on you." Later, she cries, "I don't want realism. I want magic."
There's the key, and Rice delivers it smartly. Blanche, faced with the impossibility of fueling her engines on bullshit forever, makes a desperate last stand by casting a spell of class pretension and last-ditch sexual appeal. Stanley, dumb-ass though he is, smells Blanche's animal desperation and recognizes it for what it is, though he can't put a name to it and can only respond in the most primal way possible.
All of which is an admittedly slightly overwrought way of stating that this production is quite good, and that it largely lives up to the hefty expectations of its source. The script has been cut a bit to come in at a little more than two hours, which all fans of retaining sensation in their posteriors will applaud. Rice, Pool, and Sweere form a core of solid craft and searing emotion that makes things both satisfyingly moving and artistically stimulating. Now if the Kowalskis could just afford a decorator.
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