ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play “A Streetcar Names Desire” is a landmark American drama, and no play has been so singularly associated with its original cast, in particular Marlon Brando’s rendition of Stanley Kowalski. Elia Kazan directed the original Broadway production and the 1951 film, which also starred Brando. It became almost impossible to imagine Stanley Kowalski apart from Brando, and to a lesser degree Blanche Dubois apart from Vivien Leigh and Mitch apart from Karl Malden.
The Vortex Theatre is currently staging a superlative production of “Streetcar,” completely unencumbered by the lurking shadow of Kazan’s film. Director Paul Ford has cast the show perfectly, getting stellar performances out of everyone, particularly his four central actors, Bridget Kelly as Blanche, Chad Brummett as Stanley, Amy Bourque as Stella, and Mark Hisler as Mitch.
“Streetcar” dramatizes a violent clash of values. Stanley represents the ascendant values of vitality and brute force that defined postwar America, while Blanche represents the vanishing genteel values of an antiquated era. Hounded out of her hometown of Laurel, Miss., in disgrace, Blanche arrives at her sister Stella and husband Stanley’s tiny apartment in the bustling French Quarter of New Orleans. The play then dramatizes Blanche’s psychological disintegration with the utmost precision.
Kelly captures Blanche’s conflicted psyche and fragility with perfect ease, never forcing the emotion but instead letting her character’s volatile internal life emerge unforced.
Likewise, Brummett endows Stanley with unforced masculinity and crass sexuality, perfectly at his ease throughout.
Like Karl Malden – who gave an unforgettable performance in the original production – Hisler is great as Mitch, whose ambivalence and sexual diffidence is contrasted to his friend Stanley’s unconscious sexual potency. Hisler easily transitions from timidity to aggression when he believes Blanche is not the “lady” he originally thought her to be.
Like the acting, the production values are outstanding. Dahl Delu’s facsimile of a gritty French Quarter apartment and its surrounding environs is a marvel. From the street lamp outside to the texture, furniture and accouterments within, the look and feel of New Orleans circa 1950 is astonishing.
Williams’ play is focused on Blanche’s internal state and her imminent destruction, and to accomplish this he needed to transcend the limits of realism. Using various expressionistic devices, such as lighting, sound and music, he helps the audience empathize with Blanche, who is unable to free herself from the haunting memory of her husband’s death and the part she played in his premature destruction.
Casey Mraz’s sound design is excellent, capturing perfectly the Varsouviana polka and gunshot that perpetually resounds within Blanche’s haunted mind. The jazz and other sounds of New Orleans street life that we hear throughout the show are great, too.
Lighting designer Richard Hess is equally instrumental in creating the expressionistic subjectivity that makes the show so haunting. The lurid red lights behind the transparent scrim between scenes effectively distracts from the stagehands who go on stage between each scene to remove props.
Rosemary Castro-Gallegos’ period costumes are just right.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” plays through April 15 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.