It is a wonderful risk any time a theatre company takes on a classic like Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. It is an especially wonderful risk for actors who go up against our collective or personal expectations of what their performances should look like.
The stakes are particularly high with this great American classic, which first heated up Broadway in 1947 as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and four years later scorched the big screen, earning a dozen 1951 Academy Award nominations. Marlon Brando’s brutish Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy’s (later Vivien Leigh’s) broken Southern belle Blanche DuBois are historic, indelible and seminal performances.
A few years ago I had the pleasure of watching Cate Blanchett inhabit Blanche at BAM in Brooklyn, in a production directed by Liv Ullmann for the Sydney Theater Company. There were breathtaking performances by all. I share this in the hopes of clarifying that for me, the bar could not be set any higher for any play. Tennessee Williams was my first playwright love. Streetcar and The Glass Menagerie were the first two plays I ever read.
Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Streetcar at the Covedale is a cool version of the steamy story of what happens when Stella’s older sister Blanche arrives on the streetcar named Desire at Stella and husband Stanley’s tattered two-room flat in New Orleans’ hot French Quarter. Blanche has fallen on hard times, having lost the family home, Belle Reve, in Laurel, Louisiana, as the result of or the catalyst for her alcoholism and wanton behavior, which she attempts to hide from everyone, including herself.
Stella, delightfully played by a strong Maggie Lou Rader (a company member at Cincinnati Shakespeare), has an easy acceptance of the often-abusive Stanley and her increasingly delusional sister. She just wants everyone to get along.
Clifford Nunley has to do some heavy lifting with Stanley and hits most of the physical and emotional high notes. But he lacks the rough edges needed to make Stanley sizzle. Nunley is tall and fit, which allows him some natural power. He shows he can dig deep when he weeps over his behavior with Stella. He just doesn’t feel like a vicious ex-Army sergeant.
Kim Long does an admirable job as Blanche, especially when she goes for it to actively seduce Mike Hall’s likable Mitch, her last best hope for survival. There are further opportunities for her to bring that desperate seduction to all of her encounters, especially in her relationship with Stanley.
It is a difficult task to ground Blanche’s unreality about her life into a stage reality, something we can grasp that feels less like an actor acting like Blanche DuBois. When Long’s Blanche dances and sings and works to get Mitch to love her, she is her very own Blanche. She has room to grow into how she energizes her relationship with her doting sister and, most important, the dark and impulsive Stanley.
Director Greg Procaccino seems to have moved the cast into a sense of ease with the play and their roles, stripping out the melodrama and dialing down any lingering attention to the horrible physical abuse in favor of a coolish contemporary realism. Some of the time this works well. Costumes, staging and lighting (Caren Young, Brett Bowling & Crew, and Denny Reed, respectively) are lovely. The supporting cast is delightful. Katey Blood’s Eunice and Burgess Byrd’s Negro Woman (as scripted) are strong, funny characters.
You always feel as though you are in good hands with Procaccino’s staging. The cast’s performances are thoughtful, and the production competent. Yet it never really heats up. You intellectually understand that so much is at stake for all the characters, but it doesn’t pack the corresponding emotional wallop. There is also something about the sound projection at the Covedale that works better for musicals than it does dramatic pieces like this one. You can somehow hear the actual amplification of the actor’s voices, and it stands in the way of entering the story with them.
In any theatrical run, there can be tremendous shifts in passion and tension between actors on stage. My guess is that later performances of Covedale’s Streetcar Named Desire will become equal parts hot and dangerous, cool and competent.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE , presented by the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts, continues through Oct. 5.