Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival finds the essence of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

The most remarkable thing about "A Streetcar Named Desire" may well be its demonstration of how much sexuality saturates Americans' attempts to master social and class relations. Too often, the behavior of people in the bedroom is seen as reflecting their individual psychological makeup. Not in this play, however: The personal dynamics connect with troubled self-consciousness about social standing at every significant point in the action.

Tennessee Williams' New Orleans, as portrayed in this 1947 play, shows a Southern society with its pretensions to gentility in tatters. Traditional relationships must have been especially threatened in the Big Easy, where so much social mixing across barriers took place historically. And Americans adjusting to peacetime have always had to confront upheaval in values.

This context is exploited to the full in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, which I saw last week. As directed by Christopher Liam Moore, the play had an abundance of visceral energy, centered where it should be: in the portrayals of Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins) and Blanche DuBois (Kate Mulligan).

What was most winning in Comins' performance was his canny blend of brutishness and intelligence.  Stanley is a shrewd participant in the urban rat race, with keen insight into the many ways people wield power over each other.  He exerts such power over Stella, his wife, given girlish intensity in  Nell Geisslinger's performance. They are madly in love, with conflict woven into their reciprocal magnetism.

Violence and impulsiveness are part of the deal; Stella lives without  illusions and is happy to do so.
As a result, the wounded Blanche, her sister, is never far from  lashing out at her for leaving Laurel, Miss., where the family grounded its identity in an old plantation called Belle Reve, now vaguely "lost." The baggage Blanche brings with her for an indefinite stay in the Kowalskis' crowded apartment, while conspicuously heavy on expensive clothing and accessories, is mostly metaphorical.

Mitch's attention is diverted from Stanley's poker game by Blanche.
The secret of her brief marriage, with its hauntingly violent conclusion, has released demons she must take considerable pains to subdue. Mulligan's performance as Blanche was relentless in projecting the anxiety, garrulous self-regard and snobbish spin that characterize her behavior. Her delicacy was more a transparent facade than the quality Vivien Leigh embodied in the 1951 movie with Marlon Brando. The virile movie star was mesmerizing in the way the camera made love to him, but, compared to OSF's Comins, more mannered and monochromatic dramatically.

The loose informality of life in New Orleans carries over into the staging of the men's habitual card game, the outbursts that frequently ruffle life's surfaces and the fluid movement on and off the evocative French Quarter set in this production. The lighting echoes Blanche's preference for artificiality tempered by a twilight glow.

I remain puzzled by what drives the poignant, doomed attraction of the most well-defined of Stanley's card-playing pals, Harold "Mitch" Mitchell, to Blanche DuBois. Jeffrey King's performance, while fascinating in its studied awkwardness, made it more difficult to explain his persistence as a suitor.

Blanche's appeal is perpetually an elusive quality, to say the least. Not much can stimulate the upright Mitch's interest, it seems, except his ailing mother's desire for him to get married.

But then, the routes followed by desire — whether the so-named streetcar or the larger generator of the play's action — are mysterious and subject to change.

And, in the latter case, the fare is always steep.