In the opening scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois arrives at 632 Elysian Fields a bit dismayed after riding streetcars bound for "Cemeteries" and "Desire." When she sees the home of her sister Stella Kowalski and her husband Stanley, she's none too impressed. It isn't Belle Reve, the family estate in Laurel, Miss. But it's also no dive.
Audiences get a similar experience settling in for Southern Rep's inspired production of Streetcar, which opened in sync with the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival. The Kowalski home is tucked away inside 527 Elysian Fields, the address of Michalopoulos Studio, a warehouse space that once was a funeral home. The cavernous interior is not as comfortable as Southern Rep's former digs at The Shops at Canal Place, but it adds a sense of uniqueness to the production, and like Blanche, the company won't be staying on Elysian Fields too long.
Under Jason Kirkpatrick's direction, the production is faithful and intense. Aimee Hayes wonderfully animates the flighty, delusional and desperate Blanche, and it's no small task to keep some of Williams' lyrical flourishes from descending into Southern gothic melodrama. This Streetcar doesn't go there.
Early drafts of the play were titled The Poker Night, and in the story, Blanche is all in with a massive bluff. The problem is that she's up against Stanley, who plays a lot of poker, and he's not easily swayed by her pretentions and illusions of grandeur and gentility. Quite the opposite, he's forceful and brutish when moved. Michael Aaron Santos projects an imposing Stanley, though at times it seems the physical menace, in either rage or appetite, could be even stronger.
Stella (Ashley Ricord) is caught between the two. She's pregnant and happy with her life with Stanley. She wants to care for her sister, but Stanley and Blanche are on a collision course. Ricord's Stella is guarded and accommodating, and at worst, exasperated with Stanley. That limit seems to buffer her access to what the play expresses about feeling trapped.
The play revolves around Blanche's deceptions, and it's entertaining from the first time she sneaks a shot of booze while loudly protesting that she hardly ever drinks at all. Details begin to slip out about the loss of the family estate and her life in Laurel, and it's clear she won't have a very strong hand when all the cards are finally on the table. She hopes Stanley's coworker and poker buddy Mitch (Mike Harkins) won't fold too soon, but he catches on to her game as well. Harkins is funny as the genial and plainspoken Mitch.
The central theme that raw desire can lead to socially unaccepted behavior if not madness makes the play timeless. Hayes aces that part of the play.
Bill Walker's set design is excellent, offering all seats good views of the compact two-room apartment and the central dividing curtain through which Blanche and Mitch spy one another. The spiral staircase on the side of the apartment is a wonderful component, and it's hilariously employed as neighbors Eunice Hubbell (Tracey Collins) and Steve Hubbell (Phil Karnell) race up and down as they perpetually break up and make up.
The full cast includes a bunch of tiny roles, most of which are thoughtfully and effectively rendered. There are other flourishes, like a street vendor barking out calls for hot tamales as audiences make their way into the space at Michalopoulos Studio. There's nothing wrong with the extra attention, but with the production already longer than three hours, one wonders if it's all necessary.
Some of the ambience is made possible by the space. The building's massive exposed beams and industrial walls make the Kowalski home look like it's really in the right neighborhood. On the other hand, the limited restroom facilities also required that a few port-o-lets be installed at one end of the building. That's fine for this production, but it reminds audiences that Southern Rep is still looking for a more permanent home. The company expects to announce shortly the location for the May production of Shirley Valentine. Until then, as managing director Marieke Gaboury told audiences on opening night, the theater also is depending on the kindness of strangers.
Thru April 15
A Streetcar Named Desire
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.
527 Elysian Fields Avenue, 522-6545