by Tennessee Williams
Norman Rothstein Theatre (950 W. 41st Ave.)
January 13-30
$25-$28 + s/c
604-257-0366 or www.festivalboxoffice.com

Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island got such a positive response when they staged Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece late last summer that they decided to remount it in Vancouver this winter. The Jewish Community Centre’s Norman Rothstein Theatre—a nice proscenium space, theatrically under-utililized—provides the venue. This unique arrangement turns out to be a pretty good deal for everyone. Streetcar may well be the best play ever written by an American, and Jeremy Tow’s elegant production certainly reminds us why.

Streetcar is iconic largely for two reasons. First, Brando’s Stanley Kowalski established the standard not only for all subsequent Stanleys but, really, for naturalistic North American male performance generally. Second, Blanche DuBois is possibly the greatest role in the American repertoire. The battle between the two characters, their balance of sympathies and antipathies provides the central axis of the play. Mediating between them are Stella—wife and sister—and Mitch, friend and suitor. Williams’ wonderful prose-poetry and the atmosphere and characters of his working class New Orleans provide a vivid backdrop, but the play lives or dies with its four central characters.

This Streetcar belongs, unequivocally, to Blanche. Gina Chiarelli, an under-appreciated actor until her recent career-making star turn in the locally shot film See Grace Fly, plays Blanche in a familiar vein. Vocally, she sings and swoops and twitters rather than speaks, in a way that has become conventional in the playing of this character. The choice seems right. After all, life for Blanche is a performance. She is playing the woman she would like people to think she is. The real is too harsh and painful. “I don’t tell truth,” she admits to Mitch, finally. “I tell what ought to be truth.” Chiarelli, who bears a passing resemblance to Meryl Streep, manages, like Streep, to embody the character’s eccentricities rather than just act them. Her Blanche’s nerves really do seem shot whenever she jumps at a loud noise. Physically, she moves through the world with her hands out in front of her as though she were clearing away thick spider webs. She’s trapped, like some oversized hummingbird. Blanche’s vulnerability and the inevitability of her fate bring her as near to true tragedy as anyone in the modern theatre. Chiarelli’s moving performance does justice to this exquisite character.

Lucia Frangione’s earthy Stella beautifully complements Chiarelli’s airy Blanche. Even her voice is pitched below her sister’s so their dialogues suggest the familial harmony underlying and conflicting with their new situations in life. There’s real love between these sisters, and Frangione makes us feel Stella’s pain when she has to choose between Stanley and Blanche. Her reconciliations with Stanley are genuinely steamy. For Williams, the Life Force in the play resides in their sexual connection. Ultimately, it’s no contest—Blanche can never really compete. Her one possible chance is Mitch, often played as stolid and thick, if good-hearted. Craig March is the sweetest, cutest Mitch I’ve yet seen, and it works beautifully. He’s such an attractive guy that, when he learns the “truth” about Blanche, his pain and hers and ours is that much more powerful.

The wild card in this pack is Craig Erickson’s Stanley, in some ways the most original performance in the show. Though well built, Erickson is physically slighter and looks younger than a lot of Stanleys. Utterly unlike Brando, he plays the character as a Southern cracker, a redneck boy with bad posture and a voice that might still be changing. Although he doesn’t overwhelm Blanche physically—he’s hardly the menacing “ape” she describes—his threats seem real enough. He is definitely scary. He reminded me of the young men in those pictures of screaming Deep South locals during the 1950s and early ‘60s, the kind you could imagine murdering civil rights workers or bombing a Black church. Even with his vicious streak and without the command Stanley usually has, Erickson manages to make Stella’s repeated choice of him understandable, if no less horrifying.

The other six actors do fine work as well on Carole Klemm’s perhaps slightly too attractive pink-tinged set. Overall, a very strong production of a truly great play.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Saturday, January 15, 2005 9:22 AM
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