A Streetcar Named Desire

Theater of the American South Festival, Wilson
Through May 27

Let’s face it: Blanche DuBois looks like a million bucks. In this muscular Theater of the American South production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Jordan Jaked’s smart, sophisticated costumes and the parabolic platinum waves of Rebecca Larkin’s hair designs transform actor Betsy Henderson into a walking vision from the silver screen. And that fact, in turn, makes her overdressed character even more of a fish out of water, if not an out-and-out anachronism, as she alights from a fatefully named streetcar into the dingy little district of New Orleans where her sister Stella lives at the start of Tennessee Williams’ famous drama.

But as the playwright recalled in 1947and we are still relearning over six years of banking crisesa million can turn into ashes overnight when confidence in the currency erodes. As we watch, Williams demonstrates that such a truth applies as much to cultural commerce as to its financial counterpart.

Having lost the family homestead, her job and her good name in her hometown, Blanche arrives on Stella’s doorstep with the remains of their estate in a steamer trunk. But, as we know, she finds little shelter in the two spartan rooms Stella shares with her husband, Stanley. In this working, lower-middle-class neighborhood, the inhabitants are survivors for whom the refinements and airy pleasantries of antebellum life are breathtakingly irrelevantor considered a dubious come-on instead.

Williams’ script is known, of course, for the nearly operatic oratory of Blanche’s later monologues, and it will come as no surprise to regional theatergoers that Henderson scales most of these peaks with élan. But under Marc Fajer’s direction, Lily Nelson’s robust performance as Stella uncovers a tantalizing mystery in Williams’ text.

In this production, the two sisters are a study in contrasts. While Nelson’s Stella is a salt-of-the-earth character with no discernable poise, poise is really all that Blanche has left. When we take the measure of them both, it’s hard not to conclude that a powerful force was required to throw Stella clear of the emotional quicksand of the old plantation. Though the nature of that force remains a riddle in the text and this production, the resilience we see in Nelson’s character makes us wonder more than momentarily what it was.

In Jason Sharp’s work as Stanley, the telltale signs of post-traumatic stress referenced in Fajer’s program notes are nuanced at first, before fully blossoming into violent outbursts. We savored Jason Peck’s measured performance as Mitch, Stanley’s co-worker, wartime buddy and Blanche’s potential suitor. By play’s end, both clearly stood as wounded warriors whose unaddressed pain and rage spins out to threaten all who are close to them.

But we questioned the blocking choices that rendered Blanche’s second-act seduction of a paperboy unnecessarily opaque, and the directing choices that left her breakdown too hypothetical in our Sunday matinee performance. Threadbare street-life processions and a final ham-handed segue also detracted from the production.

Still, the workout given to Williams’ script by four strong principals make this production well worth the trip to Wilson.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Southern accents.”