Theater Review | A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Running low on desire, OSF’s STREETCAR rattles ’round the quarter but never gets fully up to speed

3-stars

Certain canonical plays are so well known and have already been done so many times so memorably, that the decision to do one of them again, especially at a high level on a prominent national stage, must come armed with an answer for the question that is sure to follow: Why?

Stanley (Danforth Comins) insists to Stella (Nell Geisslinger) that what he's heard about Blanche (Kate Mulligan) is true. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Stanley (Danforth Comins) insists to Stella (Nell Geisslinger) that what he’s heard about Blanche (Kate Mulligan) is true. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Only Bill Shakes, in a category of his own, seems exempt from this dynamic. We are by now used to the fact that his plays will be done repeatedly and constantly, and this is mostly all to the good. Shakespeare, it seems, can never be done too often – only not enough. He is like the tv that is always on in the background of modern life, and to which we periodically pay attention in between flights – usually to find there is something damn interesting on. We have resigned ourselves to the fact that his channel cannot be turned off, and if indeed it ever were, the silence would be more disturbing than the non stop stream of words words words.

But mere mortal playwrights do not enjoy the same VIP status. And for massive, defining modern works like LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, the decision to put one of them on is an ambitious and fraught undertaking.

Why do a play that a good section of your audience may already know by heart – line by line? Any roomful of 600-1000 people has access on the collective hard drive of consciousness to most of the great performances of the last 50 years, and those will inevitably be playing on the interior screen as the new version rolls on the exterior stage. How will it compare, and what can possibly be added?

Well, a lot. High as the bar may be, productions small and large continue to find the essential truths of these great plays and pass them on to a new generation. Once located, the voice of the play, if authentic and fully realized, will, via the actors standing there right in front of us, soon blot out the memory of any other performance, no matter how great, because the urgency, the sadness, the power of the live story envelops us completely.

For these big name plays, the answer to why is usually closely tied to the how, and successful revivals follow one of two basic approaches. Either the director has a concept, a new way of seeing old material we think we know, or she wants to return to the source, to strip away accumulated layers of cultural and artistic shellac that over the years may have gunked up the original simplicity and beauty of the thing. Whichever route is taken, if the production lands it, the audience will see the play as if for the first time.

On paper, the cast and creative team for the STREETCAR that opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last weekend seemed to have everything necessary for one of those defining and unforgettable interpretations of this very American tale. After all, a number of them had been involved in the widely acclaimed 2010 standout OSF production of another Tom Williams favorite, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.

And so it was strange and more than a little disappointing to find that while it looks great on Christopher Acebo’s two story set and contains a number of fine performances, overall OSF’s STREETCAR never rises to the upper level of fantasy, dream, and psychodrama that this play can achieve. And perhaps the main reason is the lack of chemistry between the two main characters.

The OSF production is extremely faithful to the original time and place. Not a single piece of historical or cultural furniture has been moved or re-framed. This is not a version that has been transported or encumbered with a gimmick in any way. And yet if the concept was to revert to the exact original production of the play, the shock that must have greeted the 1947 opening is notably absent. And the authenticity of the regional mooring in the south, so key to the play’s story and psychology, is not adequately established and often challenged by the accents. There is a feeling here of going through the motions of the play without tapping in to its full spiritual power – without fully answering that all important question: Why?

Danforth Comins’ face is perhaps too handsome and unmarked to carry the animal attraction, violence and repugnance of Stanley. But what really threw me off was an accent that while strong could not be easily placed (at least by me) and seemed to vary at times. It’s not southern, it’s not Polish. What exactly is it? It sounded a lot like Brando, but without becoming natural enough that we could focus on the story.

As Blanche, Kate Mulligan moves through the play at a consistent pitch. She remains more or less the same as we first see her throughout the evening. But the madness and delusion does not come through her face. The sex appeal of Blanche, and especially her deformed emotions around her dead husband, struggle to physically manifest. We hear about them – but we don’t see enough of them. We don’t see Blanche transmitting her multiple realities and switching between them at speed – sometimes for her own benefit, and sometimes outwardly directed as she performs for others.

Though the lead roles struggle a bit, Stella and Mitch are truly excellent. Nell Geisslinger, in particular, gives a very satisfying performance as the more realistic of the two sisters. Stella knows about the madness, but she has chosen to break away and have her own life, whatever her old family may think. The force, humor and sexuality of Stella come through wonderfully.

Impressively, on opening night Geisslinger was also carrying the additional unique physical burdens of OSF’s repertory model. Earlier that same afternoon she played Kate in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. With only a few hours in between, Geisslinger gave two completely different and fully formed performances. So different was her look and character that if you did not know it was the same actor playing both roles, you wouldn’t easily spot her. Geisslinger is giving it all, and the results are superb.

When I first heard that OSF was doing STREETCAR, my next thought was that surely the fabulous Jeff King would be Mitch. He is physically perfect for the part and does not disappoint with his portrayal of this essentially decent man caught in between social codes and his own shyness. His hurt and then his anger work well as Stella’s true past comes to light.

All in all, there is plenty to like in this production, especially for those who may be seeing it for the first time. But the bar being as high as it is for a play like this, at the end of the evening the experience is perhaps somewhat less defining than what we may have expected or hoped for.

Thru 11.2

Here is Bill Varble’s review from the Mail Tribune.