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Streetcar Named Desire jumps tracks in laughable Phoenix Theatre production

Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is a nearly faultless play, a beautifully written, deeply disturbing pageant of human frailty that builds to a startling climax. None of this is apparent in Phoenix Theatre's current production. Our oldest local playhouse has fumbled Williams' prize-winning sex drama so badly that it comes off as a high-strung, clumsy comedy.

The laughs that Streetcar collected on opening night were unintentional, which made the show all the more painful to behold. Streetcar is an institution of sorts: It became an instant classic after its New York debut in 1947, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, making a star of the young Marlon Brando and solidifying Williams' position as one of America's leading playwrights.

Three years before, Williams had scored with The Glass Menagerie, the story of a woman clinging to the tatty remnants of Southern gentility. He revisits this theme in Streetcar. This time, the decaying South is embodied in Blanche, a nymphomaniac who seeks refuge with her married sister, Stella, in a shabby section of New Orleans' French Quarter. Blanche has been fired from her post as a schoolteacher after seducing a student, and is soon soliciting every man in sight, including her brutish brother-in-law Stanley, who despises her for losing the family home he hoped to inherit.

Streetcar's mood and atmosphere are almost unrelievedly morbid. The bleak, pathological plot occasionally verges on a kind of grotesque comedy--particularly as Blanche becomes increasingly insane--but Williams' delicate language never crosses over into outright melodrama. What truly derails Phoenix Theatre's Streetcar--which on opening night won more audience laughter than I've heard at many comedies this season--is Michael Mitchell's clunky direction and his casting of Sally Jo Bannow, a talented singer/comedienne, in the role of Blanche. Overall, Bannow's is an absurd performance, with only occasional hints that it's being delivered by an actor of considerable ability. She's allowed to mug her way through the part, rolling her eyes and wringing her hands and chewing the scenery to bits. When Blanche attempts to seduce a paperboy, Bannow's reading of the "I must keep my hands off children . . ." speech elicited hoots from the audience. Her performance reminded me of those old Carol Burnett Show sketches where the cast spoofed some forgotten silent film.

In Bannow's defense, Blanche is a complicated, contradictory heroine. Her awkward manners and faded beauty are meant to evoke our sympathy, and her clashes with the swinish Stanley provide the play's only clear-cut conflict. But Bannow's Blanche is so mawkish and exasperating that, while we may not condone Stanley's violence, we can understand the motivation for it. Who wouldn't hate a houseguest who spends all her time impersonating Gloria Swanson?

Mitchell also fails to establish any warmth between the sisters--a pivotal point that explains why Stella (portrayed here with pleasant restraint by Martha Slater) kowtows to Blanche and tolerates her annoying eccentricities. Without any indication of the sisters' friendship, we're left to wonder why Stella doesn't pitch her older sister out on her demented ear.

Michael Berry is sufficiently swinish as Stanley, the ham actor's favorite prole role. Fans of the play tend to overlook that Stanley is not a particularly fascinating role, but rather one that was made memorable by Brando, who repeated his stage performance in the original film. If anything, Berry's Stanley is a little too clever--an odd choice in a play about stupid people.

Scott Johnson delivers the show's best performance as Mitch, Blanche's unhappy suitor. He brings a blend of dignity and desolation to his scenes, several of which are spent simply listening to Blanche talk about herself.

The total effect of the stage dressing is perfect. Jeff Thomson's set design expertly captures the decaying grandeur of a New Orleans tenement, and the smoky glow of Paul Black's lighting--necessary because Blanche favors dark rooms in order to appear younger--is flawless. Elizabeth Ihlenfeld's costumes, particularly a series of gauzy organdy frocks, are the sort of ruined finery that Williams' people should wear.

But all the expert stagecraft in the world can't save this stalled Streetcar. Mitchell has wasted the talents of a mostly first-rate cast, and turned a soul-distorting, Freudian sex drama into an unintentional comedy. Somehow, I don't think this is the sort of tragedy that Tennessee Williams had in mind.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues through Sunday, May 31, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

 
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