Blanche and the Kowalskis share the spotlight with New Orleans itself as characters in Streetcar, and the San Pedro Playhouse production, directed by Diane Malone, makes that city every bit as important a presence as the wounded, self-deluding Blanche or the disturbingly seamy symbiosis of the Kowalski's marriage. The city is, in fact, the first character we meet, and the scenic and lighting designs - by Carolyn Peterson of Ford, Powell, & Carson, and Max Parilla, the Playhouse's Technical Director, respectively - evoke it compellingly with dingy, water-marked walls half-disguised by gauzy swathes of tropical fabrics, irrepressible foliage spilling over crumbling brick, and the dusky-rose light of the rain-swollen summer skies. Parilla is particularly to be commended for the lighting. Numerous and versatile practicals lend a realistic claustrophobia to the Kowalski's two-room slice of a once-grand Creole townhouse - modern fixtures that half light spaces built for chandeliers and leave the upper air of the tall-ceilinged rooms perpetually in darkness. And the overall palette - of baby-pink and bruise-blue - perfectly speaks of soft, pretty things fading into sadness and shadow.
The cast is uniformly strong and confident. The pacing is perfect: languid as befits its Southern poetry, but with a compelling undertow of tension moving with powerful smoothness toward the inevitable conclusion. As is true of most of Williams' plays, Streetcar is a woman's show, and succeeds or fails largely on the strength of their performances. The role of Blanche tends to be considered the more important, but Stella is as vital to the understanding of the piece and is, in some ways, a smaller target to hit. Subtle and restrained in comparison to Blanche's dramatic effusiveness, Stella is the shadow that defines Blanche's sad, fading light and the two actresses playing these roles are as responsible for each other's success, and the success of the production, as are the actors who play Shakespeare's Othello and Iago. There is little that can or need be said about the performances of Anna Gangai (Blanche) and Tracie Coop (Stella) in this production beyond the simple statement that they make the best of these parts, and of each other. Two such graceful, generous, and adept performances on a single stage are reason enough to see this show.
There are, of course, other reasons. In an age when theater is increasingly called artistically irrelevant, why do we continue to stage works like Streetcar? Certainly the piece no longer does much of what it was constructed to do. Modern audiences are not shocked at its revelations, as were the audiences at its 1947 premiere. We know about the marriage of sex and violence, the allure of the animal nature, the self-destructive cycle of despair, and the vast human capacity for self-delusion. But we know about these things, in large part, because of Tennessee Williams. Because he made them a part of our cultural vocabulary when he created these characters. "Blanche Dubois" is a disease, its cause, and the hope (although thwarted in Streetcar) of its cure, all rolled into one. She is, simultaneously, frustration at and understanding of a uniquely American type of failure. See this show to learn a language - the language shared by literate theater-goers for the past 55 years.
And see this show because it is beautiful. Like one of the old Creole townhouses of New Orleans - built for another time and a way of life almost foreign to us today - which modern Americans continue to adapt to and live in and keep alive. That city itself, more popular now than was imagined in Williams' day, is a mutely eloquent argument for why Streetcar lives for us as more than the museum piece that the car it took its name from has become - parked on a slab in front of the Old Mint on the downtown edge of the French Quarter. Streetcar continues to move, and move us, because it is beautiful. And beauty is always relevant. •
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
8pm Friday, 7pm Saturday, 2:30pm Sunday
Through February 16
San Pedro Playhouse
800 W. Ashby