By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
While ruminating about the current production of A Streetcar Named Desire playing at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, there was the thought of a scene in the hilarious fake rock biopic “This Is Spinal Tap” that sprang to mind. In describing an amplifier’s output, Christopher Guest’s character marvels that, instead of a maximum volume level of 10, “the numbers all go to 11.”
“Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?” asks Rob Reiner, the documentarian interviewing him.
“It’s one louder, isn’t it?” is the response.
With artistic director Maxwell Williams at the helm of this production as director and Helen Jaksch as its dramaturg, several of the performances were indeed turned up a notch more than necessary for this Tennessee Williams classic. Williams is a known commodity here in the Crescent City and locals in particular revere this piece for its many nuances. Sadly, some of the work’s unspoken aspects – the spaces between phrases which make his words sing with poetry – were absent from this latest interpretation.
Beth Bartley, the recent star of Southern Rep’s Suddenly Last Summer in 2015 and Orpheus Descending in 2016 (which she also co-produced), is familiar with many of the subtleties Williams intends for his female leading characters. It was surprising then that several choices she made for Blanche Dubois were seemingly overdone. A more subdued interpretation could very well have brought a more layered and realistic performance that would have pleased even more as the tension rose to the play’s dramatic conclusion.
Blanche is the focus of the work after all. Williams has her on stage most of the time and Bartley’s portrayal does keep our eyes fixed on her even during those times when other actors are speaking their lines. Her Blanche is complicated and complex. She is emotionally fragile, yet calculating as she tries to keep her world from spinning out of control. Bartley is at times coyish and playful, while at other times blunt as a slap in the face.
When it comes to the play’s comedic aspects, Bartley’s timing is absolutely brilliant. Perhaps because of her ramped up performance, Bartley’s overwrought Blanche elicits many more laughs from the material than audiences may be expecting.
As Stanley Kowalski, actor Curtis Billings also raises up the level of his anger a bit early too. Stanley is an uncultured and uncouth lout, but he is passionate about his life, especially when it comes to the things he cherishes most. Bowling, beer, babes and poker are at the top of his interests and Billings delivers a Stanley who takes an active interest in all of them. After the initial meeting between the two, he soon grows tired of Blanche as he becomes suspicious of her intentions and begins to look into her shady past.
A key scene in Act One takes place where Stanley overhears Blanche imploring a pregnant Stella (Elizabeth McCoy) to leave her husband. When he finally makes his presence known, McCoy’s character practically flings herself at him. With no words, he hugs his young wife while staring back knowingly and icily at Blanche. It is unspoken moments like that which are part of what drives Streetcar and makes it so special.
McCoy, who was last seen in Le Petit’s production of Dividing the Estate (also directed by Williams), is a fine and lovely ingenue. She is similar in age to that of the barely 25-year-old Kim Hunter, who originated the role on Broadway in 1947. Nevertheless, there is an impression that a slightly older, more experienced actor might have related better to both Billings and Bartley, who are both much older in appearance.
Paul Whitty delivers a top performance as Mitch, in which he becomes the gentleman caller to Blanche’s Southern belle persona. His measured and deliberate choices work well with Bartley on stage as she weaves a web of deceit, hoping to trap him in marriage, her last desperate measure.
Troi Bechet and Zeb Hollins, III as Eunice and Steve, the Kowalskis’ upstairs neighbors and landlords provide decent support of the other actors. John Fitzpatrick, as the Evening Star collector, is shy as Blanche asks him the seductively leading question: “Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?” When the siren announces she is going to kiss him on the mouth and does so, he jumps back with trepidation as she dismisses him.
With this one irrational act of compulsion, we realize Blanche is as guilty of the kind of lustful behavior for which she condemns her common and coarse brother-in-law, Stanley.
A Streetcar Named Desire pays homage to the seamy underbelly of New Orleans in a way that its streets and sounds become a secondary, everpresent character throughout the play as the lives of its leading actors play out on stage. Kevin O’Donnell, as sound designer and composer, goes a long way to animating those aspects of the city.
Kudos to scenic designer Jean Kim for an exceptional rendering of the home on Elysian Fields. Projections by Nicholas Hussong also enhance the scenes with realistic touches.
Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” continues at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré, 616 St. Peter Street, with shows on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. through March 25. For tickets call 504-522-2081 or click here.