OSF's 'Streetcar' lacks punch lofty expectations promised

The stage of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is dominated by Christopher Acebo's hulking, scrim-like evocation of a seedy New Orleans apartment building. Rather like those nightmarish, leaning buildings in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," the distorted, two-level configuration seems to have a twisted life of its own. It looms over the set as if about to consume it.

On a literal level, the cast-iron filigree says French Quarter New Orleans. The moody device also lets us peer into the upstairs apartment of Steve and Eunice, neighbors whose relationship bounces between poles of physical love and domestic violence.

More deeply, the dream-like building is an expressionistic evocation of the inner life of Blanche DuBois, the fading southern belle who is in large part Williams' alter ego, and on whom the walls are closing in.

The bar is high indeed for anybody who mounts a revival of Williams's seminal 1947 play about the destruction of Stella Kowalski's flighty and fragile elder sister, Blanche, by Stella's brutish husband, Stanley. All these decades later an electrifying young Marlon Brando bellowing "Stellaaaaa!" and a ruined Jessica Tandy pathetically saying she's always depended on the kindness of strangers remain cultural touchstones.

"Streetcar" director Christopher Liam Moore and company jacked the bar up even further long before this production, which is being staged in the OSF's Bowmer Theatre, was on the drawing board.

They did this by pulling off the OSF's extraordinary 2010 production of Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

That was probably the finest production of that play I've ever seen. You wish this "Streetcar" had the same wallop as that "Cat," but it falls short of that lofty benchmark.

Oddly, since this is a fine group of actors, much of the reason has to do with the acting. Kate Mulligan endows fading Southern belle Blanche with some depths but never breaks our heart. Danforth Comins' Stanley Kowalski is curiously lacking in both sexual magnetism and a sense of imminent violence.

Fluttery, moth-like Blanche shows up in the crumby flat her sister, the deferential Stella, shares with her rough-and-tumble, working-class husband, Stanley. Blanche is a gently raised, romantic soul with a mysterious past and some annoying pretensions, but she clearly has the playwright's sympathy.

With an animal-like cunning, Stanley suspects something sordid behind Blanche's facade of elegance and gentility. He's also suspicious of Blanche's account of losing the family's Mississippi plantation, Belle Reve, believing that somehow Blanch is ripping off her sister and, because Louisianna operates under the Napoleanic Code, ripping him off too, since everything a woman has is half her husband's.

As Blanche, with her history of scandal, tragedy and promiscuity, senses disaster, she becomes more desperate, reaching out to an imaginary suitor and to Stanley's big lug of a poker buddy Mitch (Jeffrey King, in a spot-on performance).

Blanche's fragile inner life is constantly expressed on the stage through props (the naked light bulb she covers with a cheap lantern), actions (the steamy baths she takes), blocking (the characters don't have enough space and are always bumping into one another), music (a song on the radio she associates with her gay husband's death by suicide), Robert Wierzel's moody lighting. The dialogue is by turns lyrical and expansive (Blanche) or terse and monosyllabic (Stanley).

"I can't stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action," Blanche announces as she covers the bulb. When Mitch later tears away the paper lantern, he's ripping off both Blanche's facade and her illusions, leaving her naked.

It is traditional to place Blanch somewhere on a continuum that runs from moth (which Williams called her) to tiger (which Stanley calls her). In a performance not marked by subtlety, Mulligan shows both sides. She's tiger-like as she gears for her fight with Stanley, moth-like in her second-act love scene with shy Mitch, during which her vulnerability allows our deepest look at her.

But we would like to see more of her poor, ruined soul, and more use of the fading sexual allure that is her only remaining resource. Her depiction of Blanche's alcoholism wants for pathos and even tilts toward comedy. Mulligan plumbed the character more deeply in the play's second half, and she does manage an acceptable southern accent.

Danforth Comins, who was an electrifying Brick in "Cat," is a strangely flat Stanley. Williams described the character as a "gaudy seed-bearer," but Comins is more like an angry kid brother playing amateur detective. Even the rape scene, which should be horrifying, hits a clunker note, lacking tension.

Comins is required to speak in a funny accent that's hard to pin down but sounds like an obligatory character in those old World War II movies, a G.I. from Brooklyn, or maybe it was Joisey. That character was usually a comic one, and maybe our association with the accent doesn't serve things well here.

Geisslinger, a young actor whose work has gained depth over the past few years, is so natural as Stella that we're barely aware she's acting. She is protective of her deteriorating big sister but clearly in love with her animalistic husband, specifically including their time in bed.

This is not a bad "Streetcar." It is often painful, occasionally luminous and always sensitive to all the fear, shame and vulnerability running through the story. It may develop more juice as it finds legs during its run. But it's not the relevatory bombshell of the 2010 "Cat." It also suffers somewhat from squandered momentum due to two intermissions, the second of which seems superfluous in a three-hour play.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to rogueviewpoint@gmail.com.

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