BY SANDY STAGGS
Shakespeare aside, few playwrights have ingratiated their prose into our cultural vernacular with quotable dialogue as Tennessee Williams. Stanley Kowalski’s “Stellaaaaaaaaa” and Blanche Dubois’ “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” rank right up there with “To be or not be, that is the question” from Hamlet and “A rose by any other name” from Romeo and Juliet.
In the Mill Town Players’ current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I found myself reciting Blanche’s “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable” speech and even in the final scene, the doctor’s line “It won’t be necessary” when the matron asks if Blanche needs a straitjacket.
Celebrated for classic musicals and family-friendly music shows and plays, Streetcar is by far company’s most “mature” work to date, and a stunning success.
Set in the post-WWII French Quarter of New Orleans in a shabby two-room apartment, this Southern Gothic Pulitzer prize winner concerns a young working class couple, Stanley and Stella (Westin Edwards and Thelma Cope) who are unwilling hosts to Stella’s older sister, Blanche (Beth Martin).
Stanley immediately resents his destitute guest who has lost the family estate Belle Reve in fictional Laurel, Mississippi, believing (and citing the French Napoleonic Code) he, as husband to Stella, has been cheated out of an inheritance.
Martin, in an exquisite, mesmerizing turn as Blanche (a juicy role played over the decades by the likes of Vivien Leigh, Jessica Tandy, Jessica Lange, and Ann-Margret), devours this character in a deep south drawl, sneaking in a shot of liquor every chance she gets, and all the while claiming near-sobriety, and sulking in hit baths for her nerves and conscious.
Her interpretation is most aligned with Lange’s steamy portrayal and is the most committed, complex, and multi-faceted dramatic performance (male or female) to ever grace the stage at Pelzer Auditorium. Slinking around in costume jewelry and old dresses like she is “Queen of the Nile” as Stanley proclaims, Blanche is right up there with Lady Macbeth.
As Stella, Cope is steadfast in this less flashy part but grounds the play in her empathy and goodwill, particularly in her love for her sister, and devotion to her husband, despite his lack of self-control.
While not as physically menacing as Marlon Brando, Edwards is a formidable Stanley, oozing machismo and feral rage and rationale.
Rounding out the primary cast is MTP regular Brian Reeder as Mitch in a rare dramatic performance – he did embody Othello last summer. Sensitive and lonely, Mitch is the foil to Stanley and Blanche’s suitor. That is, until her sordid past comes to light.
The cast also featured Beverly Clowney and Ken Thomason as upstairs neighbors Eunice and Steve Hubbell, Austin Dowling as poker buddy Pablo Gonzales, Sam Langenfeld as a newspaper collector Blanche tries to seduce, and Anna Brown and Michael Friedman as the matron and doctor in the final minutes of the play. Erika Reyes voices the Mexican woman.
Director Christopher Rose (also MTP associate artistic director) marks his second stellar staging from the Williams canon after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof several seasons ago at the Market Theatre in Anderson. Rose’s sensitivity and flair as a director shine even brighter on this proscenium stage with a consistent, finely-tuned mood and fastidious flow that permeates the proceedings so much, one can taste the gin, humidity and salt air of the gulf coast. Cary Doyle is assistant director. Streetcar is three hours including intermission, but is so well-paced and engrossing that it feels like two hours.
Hats off to Will Ragland (MTP Executive Artistic Director) for his exquisite set design, that makes not only New Orleans a character, but the apartment and courtyard itself. Peeling wallpaper and busted plaster, dilapidated furniture, abstract crumbling brick walls, the ornate galley above with cast iron posts, period appliances. And the set extends all the way up to the rafters. Again, exquisitely detailed.
The creative team also include costumes by Cyndi Lohrmann, lighting design by Tony Penna and Stage Management by Marcie Antoinette Hall.
A Streetcar Named Desire continues through Sunday, February 26 at Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St in Pelzer. For tickets, visit http://www.milltownplayers.org/ or call (864) 947-8000.