The Challenge of Tennessee – A Campbelltown Theatre Group Production
Desire is the name of the game in Tennessee Williams’ 20th Century masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). The story is a classic: Blanche DuBois is a down and out Southern Belle from Mississippi. Her family’s dead; she’s lost their estate and her job as an English teacher. With nowhere to go Blanche is forced to move in with her sister, Stella Kowalski, and her husband Stanley in their tiny two room apartment in New Orleans. Over a period of several months the play tracks Blanche as she slides into a nervous breakdown. Ultimately and tragically, her frayed nerves cannot withstand the compounding effects of her traumatic past, increasing alcoholism and the brutish behavior of Stanley who views Blanche as a threat to his marriage.
Plays from ‘the canon’ have their temptations: they’re thematically strong, beautifully crafted and are littered with subtle and nuanced characters. They do however hold some dangers: they are challenging and notoriously difficult to get right, even for professional companies. All the leads in Streetcar (Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch) are complex people who struggle to control their desires before finally surrendering to them. Blanche is a seemingly refined, restrained and proper southern lady who only wants beauty and romance in her life. She is pitted against Stanley, an impulsive man who does what he wants and is interested only in hard reality. Yet the beauty of Williams’ opposing dichotomy is that it’s not so black and white. For all Blanche’s show of decorum and restraint we learn that she has surrendered to impulse no less than Stanley has. In fact, she is notorious for it. Evidently, this only begins to scratch the surface. The point however, is that any production approaching the text, needs to work through all of its subtleties. Yet one wonders if Campbelltown’s Theatre Group has done all their homework.
Kirsten Lee plays Blanche, a character powerfully portrayed by Vivian Leigh in the 1951 Kazan film. This however, did not impede Lee’s command of the stage nor did it guide her character decisions. Lee’s Blanche was firmly grounded and had the consistent air of high-birth. She maintained the accent of the Deep South, and had moments of emotional brilliance. Lee gave us a three dimensional Blanche, but fell just short of delivering the Blanche that Williams’ envisaged. Whilst becoming too flighty can leave one with the same problem, Blanche must be on the brink. Her desire and her madness collapse into a large vortex that along with her feminine frailty creates a character we truly pity and fear. This, Lee needed to develop further. It should however be noted that Lee stepped into this role only ten days before the show opened. With such a limited time to develop her character she is surely to be commended for her performance.
Josephine Parsons gave a wonderful performance as Stella, playing the role with integrity and force. Particularly impressive was her capacity to give Stella the sensual nuances and faded will embodied in Williams’ work. After a privileged upbringing Stella has now become part of the working class and, under the literal hand of her husband, she has settled into the depressive mediocrity of lower class living. Parsons felt this pain. She was true to the text. She loved Stanley and hated him. She loved Blanche but resented her willingness to let the past haunt the present. Certainly, Parsons was a stand-out.
Michael Hurley as Stanley Kowalski held his own well amongst a cast of older actors. He gave us Stanley’s temperamental nature and irritability and was highly believable in physical scenes that required a fast pace and eye for detail. It must be mentioned too that Hurley, under the colossal shadow of Marlon Brando, did a fine job of finding his own way around this infamous character. The beauty of Brando however, was the dangerous sexual nature that he brought to the role. Hurley, whilst certainly comfortable to provide us with such requirements, needed to deliver a further sense of danger and viciousness.
Also of note was John Michael Burdon in the role of Mitch, Blanche’s love interest. Burdon gave Mitch the much needed quality of ‘big and loveable’. Mitch wants to be refined and he wants something special but is also, just as much as Stanley is, an animal of instinct. Burdon dealt well with the changes required of Mitch and solicited a genuine connection to the text, if somewhat simplified at times. Overall, Burdon produced a pleasant portrayal of a character similarly shadowed by acting greats of the past.
It should be noted though that the roles of Stanley and Mitch are alternated every night with actors Trevor Burdon and Craig Davidson respectively. A different evening may therefore provide for a very different viewing.
Regardless of who’s on stage, director David Cascarino offers a wonderfully lavished and well-designed set with a great attention to detail. No minimalism here. Likewise the costume design was perfectly suited to the era in which the play is set. The jazzy music used throughout the piece has also been well selected and creates a perfect sense of atmosphere that the show requires.
A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at the charming Town Hall Theatre Campbelltown 8:00pm only on Friday and Saturday with a 2:00pm matinee on Saturdays until the 25th of May. Tickets prices $18 – $22.50. For more details see: http://www.ctgi.org.au/