Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Not Your Parents' 'Streetcar' (It's Better!)

You know an audience is fully engaged in the drama unfolding before them when nary a sound can be heard throughout the house - not a cough, not a sneeze, not a sniff, not a whisper, not the crinkle of a candy wrapper, not the rustling of a program, and not a body shifting on a seat. Nothing!

And that's pretty much how the entire third act of "A Streetcar Named Desire" played out at Ferndale's Ringwald Theatre this past Monday night - and for good reason: It's a damn fine show that brought tears to the eyes of at least two people I talked to following the performance.

The classic drama by Tennessee Williams is familiar to most theatergoers, as many actors want to tackle Williams' meaty characters, and theater companies are sometimes compelled to add such important works to their schedule. But be forewarned: Travis Reiff's production is unlike any you've likely seen before.

How so?

For starters, Reiff - who is no stranger to the show - lets us know right from the opening lines that his production will explore the deep and often ugly corners of his characters. These aren't actors playing make believe, but real people with real emotions we're observing, both in the happy moments and the dark. And he's not afraid to examine the brutal violence in the script - both the physical and the emotional - which often is underplayed by squeamish directors fearful of shocking or offending their patrons.

The result, then, is that the complexities of human nature are laid bare for all to see, and - just like in real life - the results are not always pretty. In other words, Reiff's production isn't afraid to get down and dirty with the rough stuff.

Also no stranger to the show is this cranky critic, who has seen "Streetcar" and/or reviewed it more times than I can possibly remember. And where productions either fail (horribly, I might add) or succeed is how effective the actors are at bringing to life two of the most significant characters in the pantheon of modern American drama: Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. If there's no sizzle between them - if animal magnetism isn't apparent from the get-go - then "Streetcar" is reduced to nothing but three hours of sheer boredom. Equally important is this: Stella - Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife, and the centerpiece (and hoped-for prize) of their battle - must also be carefully constructed, as a portrayal too strong or too weak will ruin Williams' story.

So casting is important; so, too, is the interpretation by director and actors alike. And here, Reiff's eye is spot on.

Michael Lopetrone, a sweet, good-looking and very personable young actor, has certainly stepped up his game in the role of Stanley. In many (if not most) productions of "Streetcar" you'll see, Stanley is played by a beefy or muscular actor, or someone who looks physically intimidating. Not so, in Reiff's production; instead, he shatters stereotypes. Lopetrone - while nicely built and trim - looks more like the cute guy next door who every mother wishes would marry her daughter, and that makes Stanley's flash-quick temper and violent outbursts even more powerful and unexpected as the story unfolds. Add Lopetrone's acting skills to the mix, and the result is a performance that's both scary (domestic violence can happen at the drop of a hat) and complex.

Also complex is Meredith Deighton's Stella. She's the pawn in the battle between Blanche and Stanley, and the tightrope she walks between the two is plainly visible. Watch her face throughout the show; it reveals everything you need to know about what Stella's thinking at any given moment.

And together? This is a married couple you can believe has the hots for one another - and whose sex life is the tie that binds them together despite their significant differences. (I've been told the two actors have "a history" together, and that likely contributes to the realism of their performances. Or if I'm wrong, maybe not.)

Ultimately, however, the show's success depends on Blanche - that is, how believable is the actress who plays this complicated (and delicious) character. This is a very difficult role to play - and play well - as there's a fine line between drama and melodrama that must not be crossed. Jamie Warrow - an actress known for numerous kick-ass roles over the years - understands that Blanche is a master manipulator, and so every gesture, every expression and every line she delivers is deliberately crafted to convey what Williams intended. Doubters will only have to endure the emotional third act to fully appreciate the work of this fine actress.

Also well crafted are many of the supporting characters. If I didn't know better, I'd assume Keith Kalinowski (Steve) is a good ol' Southern boy. As Mitch, Brandy Joe Plambeck's three years in the Hilberry graduate program continue to serve him (and theatergoers) well, as recent performances exhibit a sharpening of skills that had already been noteworthy. And Lauren Bickers tackles Eunice, a role that many might dismiss as simply one to help drive the plot forward, with a gusto that truly makes her a memorable character.

Even the technical aspects of the show are top notch, especially Alexander L. Carr's set design, which creatively flows across the space in a manner I've not seen there before. (But then again, I have missed a handful of shows over the years...) And lighting by the aforementioned Plambeck is complimentary to both the set and the plot.

The bottom line is this: In a season filled with "must-see" shows, "A Streetcar Named Desire" ranks among the best.

"Streetcar" runs through Dec. 7. CLICK HERE for complete times and date.

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