‘A Streetcar Named Desire’: Stellar Stella brought down to Earth

Though it turns 66 on December 3, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is not ready to retire. Witness its resiliency in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s film about a tarnished socialite with delusions of grandeur who moves in with a sister who has settled for a working-class slob. Evidence of its enduring power is a riveting production currently at the Little Carver Theatre, a collaboration between Klose/Seale Productions and the Renaissance Guild.

The compact Carver space was adroitly redesigned to resemble two shabby rooms on a scruffy street that, though far from heaven, is named Elysian Fields. When Blanche DuBois asks her sister Stella, who grew up in decaying gentility: “What on earth are you doing in a place like this?” the question seems reasonable. The Kowalski apartment is not insulated from the clamorous tumult outside—streetcar clangs, peddlers’ calls, squabbling neighbors, lightning and thunder. Except for an anachronistic touch-tone telephone and a soda cup with a plastic bubble top, director Carol Lee Klose and set designer Chris Sauter have summoned up working-class New Orleans just after World War II.

A proud veteran, Stanley Kowalski now works for an auto parts company. His principal pleasures are bowling, poker and the flesh of his wife Stella. When Stella’s sister, fleeing their Mississippi hometown, moves in, the apartment becomes the arena for epic combat between Blanche and Stanley, soul and body, beauty and the beast. Blanche insists on seeing herself as an elegant, ethereal Southern belle. Intent on stripping away his sister-in-law’s fantasies, Stanley is a brutish prole whose own delusion is that it is possible to live without illusions.

It is not easy to endow a self-aggrandizing sot teetering on the edge of hysteria with nuance and humanity. But Sam Carter Gilliam’s performance as Blanche is mesmerizing. She is in consummate control of a character who careens into madness. Long before she delivers Blanche’s famous final line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” it is clear that Gilliam, a veteran of numerous roles here and elsewhere and the only member of Actors Equity in this production, is pitching a no-hitter.

Since bowling metaphors are even more appropriate than baseball ones to Blanche’s blue-collar brother-in-law, it would be accurate to laud Rick Frederick, as Stanley, for delivering a strike. Surly, slovenly and savage, he commands attention even when chomping on a greasy piece of chicken. His resentment of a gaudy interloper pushes him inexorably toward the verge of violence. More visibly pregnant as the drama proceeds, Mindy Fuller’s Stella is an earthy presence who is the co-dependent of an abusive spouse. Byrd Bonner, in a departure from the romantic leads he has previously crooned his way through, plays Stanley’s buddy Mitch as a shaggy galoot with a hint of delicacy that is defeated by Blanche’s deceit.

“I don’t want realism,” Blanche insists. “I want magic.” This stunning rendition of an American classic offers both.

A Streetcar Named Desire

8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm Sun
The Little Carver Theatre
226 N Hackberry
(210) 207-7211
Through Oct 6

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