If you think you know the characters in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," think again.
In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production that opened Saturday night in the Bowmer Theatre, director Christopher Liam Moore takes the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and turns the familiar inside out. Moore makes the fading Southern belle, Blanche Dubois (Kate Mulligan), her younger sister Stella (Nell Geisslinger), Stella's gruff, working-class husband, Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins), and even Blanche's hapless suitor, Mitch (Jeffrey King), unexpectedly nuanced and complex.
This Stanley is no ignorant, yelling brute. There is an incredible emotional vulnerability to Comins' portrayal. And, while Stanley may lack the gloss of polite society, he is far from stupid — we learn that he is, after all, a sales representative for a precision tool manufacturer. Comins' Stanley is straightforward and spontaneous with real generosity. He initially accepts the unannounced arrival of his sister-in-law with a wry humor. But he is also capable of abrupt outbursts of anger and physical violence. It is as much Stanley's fear of losing Stella as his anger at Blanche's dismissive treatment that sparks the final confrontation.
Likewise, Mulligan's Blanche is both helpless and calculating. She is a butterfly made of steel, haunted by the suicide of the beautiful young husband who captured her heart and imagination, only to betray her, not with another woman but with a man. She sought relief in emotionless physical oblivion — sex and alcohol. Seduction and a sense of noblesse oblige have been her survival tools. She has truly "depended on the kindness of strangers" to get by in the world. This Blanche is charming and fluttery only when she wants something. If she doesn't find a person useful, she is imperious, insensitive and contemptuous.
She meets her match in Stanley Kowalski. When the inevitable occurs between them — with both of them very, very drunk — there are no more niceties, no more holding back. The veneer is gone from Blanche. Stanley, in turn, exacts his revenge for every slight, every dismissal, every interference with his emotionally dependent relationship with Stella.
The result is not pretty, but not unexpected. Both have been playing with this dynamite since their first scene together.
Moore also has made Stella and Mitch a stronger presence in the drama than we are used to.
Geisslinger's Stella is no passive, abused wife. Her Stella is equally as manipulative, as emotionally and sexually obsessed with Stanley as he is with her. We can understand that after the repressive social norms of Stella's Southern aristocrat upbringing, Stanley is incredibly liberating. Geisslinger conveys Stella's annoyance with Blanche's pretensions and put-downs without minimizing her distress at the escalating conflict between Stanley and Blanche.
King is similarly as multi-dimensional as Mitch. Simple, inarticulate, lonely, Mitch erupts in uncharacteristic anger when he realizes he's been deliberately deceived, trapped. His pain and confusion in the final scene is heartbreaking. Moore makes it clear that this is the loss of Mitch's dream as well.
Christopher Acebo's deceptively gentle and ethereal set is not unlike Blanche. The transparent wall of wrought-iron filigree has a jutting, angular disequilibrium that makes the whole scene slightly edgy and ominous. Along with Robert Wierzel's lighting design, the set is simultaneously claustrophobic and exposed — evoking a sense that its residents have nowhere to hide. Alex Jaeger's costume design effectively conveys the heat and oppressive humidity of a summer in New Orleans. There are lots of slips, undershirts and robes as well as simple wrap dresses in contrast with the mysterious cache of furs, pearls and more elaborate summer frocks hidden in Blanche's incongruous, large steamer trunk. Andre J. Pluess supplied some properly bluesy New Orleans sounds as backup.
It is said that there is a bit of Tennessee Williams in all of his characters, but it is especially true of Blanche. His attraction to the character of Stanley, the raw sexuality and the genuine spontaneity, is apparent. But, with Blanche, Williams muses on the death of the Old South, the loss of grace, elegance and a sense of romance. At the end of "Streetcar," Blanche, like the Old South, takes refuge in memory and illusion rather than cope with harsh reality and painful truth.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" is at the Bowmer through Nov. 2. For more information, call 541-482-4331 or visit www.osfashland.org.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.