There is a reason the works of Tennessee Williams continue to be produced more than 70 years after most of them were first written. That reason can no more be felt than the latest production of his work currently running at the Cumberland Theatre and Performing Arts Center.
For those unfamiliar with one of the masterpieces of 21st century playwrighting, "Streetcar Named Desire" begins as the character of Blanche DuBois — a fading Southern belle and disgraced high school teacher — arrives on the dirty New Orleans doorstep of her sister, Stella and Stella’s “brutish” husband, Stanley Kowalski.
This gritty American tragedy can be hard to maneuver for even the most experienced of actors but the cast of this Cumberland Theatre production presents an interpretation that does not shy away from being daring, from being shocking, from being every moment on stage that the playwright must have intended when he penned it in 1947.
Other companies have chosen to portray Blanche as the victim — a bystander to a set of circumstances thrust mercilessly upon her. Under the direction of Darrell Rushton with superb acting by Kimberli Rowley, this Blanche DuBois is not a victim but “playing one.” This Blanche is well aware of her machinations and takes full responsibility for them — owning up to her fate almost boldly and daringly. This approach creates an even battle and playing field between Blanche and her toxic rival, Stanley.
“A woman’s charm is fifty percent allusion,” she says.
Surrounding herself with fictional glamour and attempting to fashion a sow’s ear into a silk purse has served Blanche well for most of her life. It has been her coping mechanism through a series of tragedies — including the suicide of her husband who kept a secret of his own. And her nemesis Stanley is the only one bold enough to call her out on her act.
Stanley sees Blanche as a threat — to his marriage, his family, even to the neighborhood and he wages a personal investigation to rid his home of his manipulative sister-in-law, ultimately doing the one physically heinous thing to Blanche that she could never do to him.
Stanley is portrayed here as wicked, possessive, controlling, distant and perpetually sultry by John Barker, making his Cumberland Theatre debut with a major iconic role. Blanche compares Stanley to an ape in one scene and to an animal in another. And ultimately, he proves her right. Barker and Rowley make amazing sparring partners who as actors must trust one another in order to make the simmering pot of chemistry between them come to an uncomfortable and shocking boil.
Although Blanche pretends to need the “kindness of strangers,” she is quite bold and strong and fearless, living life on her own terms even if those terms mean a soiled reputation. She is doing what she must to survive, including keeping company with men who catch her eye. One such man is Mitch (played astutely and charmingly here by Trey Wolfe). Blanche even attempts to seduce Mitch by speaking French — knowing full well he does not understand her but would be impressed with her anyway.
Allyson Boate is Stella — the sister who left home to follow her passion — that passion being Stanley. Stella’s readiness to believe her husband in the final scene of this production and be able to commit her sibling to a hospital speaks more to Stella as the delusional character than to Blanche.
All of Tennessee Williams’ most famous characters in nearly all of his canon of work walk a tight rope of “hide your crazy” and actual mental instability. And in "Streetcar Named Desire" those characters don’t just walk that rope — they tap dance on a high wire — 20 feet above the ring with no net.
Williams himself called this play “a ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.”
This brave, unapologetic, very adult and full throttle version of Tennessee Williams’s timeless masterpiece is a passionate portrayal of what it means to be an outsider, to want to recreate one’s image and start over, to long for love but to settle for admiration, and to find a place in a society in which many feel desperately obsessed to belong.
The Cumberland Theatre cast of "Streetcar Named Desire" also includes Jennifer Clark, Mike Virtis, Lillian Clark, Timothy Bambara and Tai Baumann. The set is brilliantly designed by Rhett Wolford. Performances run Thursday through Sundays beginning now through June 16.
Shane Riggs is the managing editor of Allegany Magazine, a sister publication to the Cumberland Times-News.