By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You have to experience the show to remember its origin's past fodder for satire. Even folks who've never read the script or seen a live production or watched Elia Kazan's movie know who Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski are; they can mimic the Southern faded flowers and undershirt-clad galoots screaming "Stella!" without understanding how Williams had furthered a stage innovation he pioneered--the combination of raw naturalism and the fragile, stylized poetry of dreams. It's a tribute to Williams that stage experiments since have had that quality of fractured nocturnal narrative: He was always interested in how dreamers are corrupted by the brutal facts upon which their fantasies are built. But Williams' early hit represented an emphatic shift in the balance he'd established as an upstart. In his first success, The Glass Menagerie, Williams showed mama Amanda and daughter Laura feathering their nests with asbestos fantasies of an impossibly perfect suitor and snuggling deeper for protection when the potential husband didn't work out. In comparison, Streetcar makes the shrill sound of glass breaking, when a Southern woman who clings to pathetic post-Civil War ideas of gentility and modesty collides with a volcanic blue-collar ethnic who's managed to make something of himself in New Orleans. Fantasy does not prevail.
Allied Theatre's veteran director Jim Covault professes never to have seen a live or filmed version of Streetcar, which might explain why each of the conflicts--education vs. instinct, laborer vs. bon vivant, sexually fulfilled vs. promiscuously unsatisfied--emerges so clearly and cleanly upon Allied's simply divided stage. Rowdy action happens between the living room, where Stanley (Matthew Tompkins) and his buddies play drunken, violent poker, and the bedroom, where Stella (Dana Schultes) lovingly, obediently tends to her older runaway sister Blanche (Julienne Greer). The biggest triumph of Covault's production may be redeeming us from the hazy scrim of Blanche's intense, self-defensive Southern "manners" and stinging us with the junkyard-dog temperament of Stanley. Tompkins betrays little vanity as Stanley, a character traditionally portrayed as being a pugilist more by immaturity than nature but a definite knockout in that undershirt; with Tompkins, there's the rancid scent of sadism in the way he pounds on tables and strikes out at those who belittle him. It's a perfectly repulsive embodiment of a bully--kudos to Tompkins for soft-pedaling any erotic currents in favor of class-conscious insecurity expressed as pure meanness. Schultes as Stella fills out the show's most underwritten role as a kitten caught between a volatile husband and an unstable sister. She never wants to recognize guilt on either side even as she's soiled by it from consoling both. A passive and convincing Schultes ultimately provides us, the audience, an uneasy entry into all this domestic mayhem. Meanwhile, Williams has preordained that Blanche's own compulsive "intimacies with strangers" will doom her, and her punishment feels dragged out to contemporary ticketbuyers despite all the intelligence with which Greer fights it. Any actress who steps into Blanche must beware that, over time and imitation, she has become an exercise in tiresome passive aggression. Even Blanche's insanity seems calculated to punish her sister. Luckily, Greer recognizes this. Rather than succumb to soft-voiced, sleeve-fluttering soliloquies of madness, she accompanies her escort to the asylum with a snotty dignity that sucks the sugary center out of her character's too-familiar fate.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through March 24 at Fort Worth’s Stage West. Call (817) STG-WEST.