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Students add heat to American classic

Sock and Buskin’s staging of ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ seeks to return to the play’s Southern roots

In the scene that gives “A Streetcar Named Desire” its famous name, Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle fallen on hard times, chastises her sister Stella for marrying a man Blanche deems too common.

“What you are talking about is brutal desire — just — Desire! — the name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter,” Blanche says.

“Haven’t you ever ridden on that streetcar?” Stella chastises in response.

“It brought me here,” Blanche says, “where I’m not wanted and where I’m ashamed to be.”

While many themes imbue “Streetcar” with the symbolism that has enthroned it in American classrooms, Sock and Buskin’s staging reframes the Tennessee Williams classic, focusing on the New Orleans heat — both physical and metaphorical — representing passion and shame. The play, which opened Thursday night, conveys those themes with a rawness that makes its trainwreck-in-motion narrative compelling, if at times difficult to watch.

The play opens with the arrival of Blanche, played by Anna Reed ’15, at the less-than-modest home of her younger sister Stella, played by Sarah Gage ’15. But her arrival sparks tension with Stella’s husband Stanley, played by Arjun Pande ’14, that eventually leads to the exposure of Blanche’s sordid past, causing her nervous breakdown.

Though the play follows Blanche’s journey, it is Stella who embodies the struggle between Blanche and Stanley.

Stella “tries to make other people comfortable,” but she is torn between Blanche’s and Stanley’s worlds, said Gage, who plays the torn character with aplomb. Both Stella’s sister and her husband end up fighting for her attention and allegiance during the play’s course, though neither succeed in the end.

If there is any victory between the two in the play, it belongs to Blanche, Reed said.

“There’s something triumphant in that last scene, that last exodus,” Reed said, referring to her character’s famous line betraying her dependence on “the kindness of strangers.” There’s a misconception that the play’s most violent scene breaks Blanche, “but really it’s ruining Stanley,” she added.

Overall, the production is “trying to honor the text as much as we can,” Gage said.

The setting itself plays a starring role in this production of “Streetcar,” augmented by the music called for in Williams’ script.

“It’s like an extra character in the play,” said director and Professor of Theater Arts and Performance Studies Lowry Marshall, citing its “ancient charm” and “polyglot of people.”

“Around every corner is a band. Around every corner is a bar,” she said, adding that she traveled to New Orleans over the summer to immerse herself in the city. “I wanted to have that sense of New Orleans music and popular music of the time (in the play).”

At times, that vision can feel too large for the two-bedroom set on the Stuart Theater stage. Though the play captures the variety and liveliness of New Orleans music, even a jazzy intermission does little to distract from mishaps on set. During Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, Pande’s imposing physicality unintentionally knocked over props, a struggle also faced by Skylar Fox ’15, who plays Blanche’s well-meaning suitor Harold Mitchell. The set’s problems were not limited to character interactions, but also resulted from technical problems — the bedroom fan refused to turn off when dictated by the script and a misplaced electric candle tipped over, momentarily causing the actors to break form.

Despite those hiccups, the play succeeds in sustaining the central tension and conflict, even if the acting often seemed forced. Reed plays flighty yet emotionally sensitive Blanche to the hilt, though her delivery occasionally strains even the character’s predisposition to hysteria. Hovering nearby, Gage portrays the ever-suffering Stella with just the right touch of infatuation and familial angst, and Pande sells Stanley’s respective turns at anger and remorse with ease. Nuanced performances from both Fox, who expertly conveys heartbreak through well-placed outrage and tears, and Celeste Cahn ’15, who captures the right shade of gentle and gruff in landlady Eunice, round out some of the play’s best moments.

Clocking in at just under three hours long, “Streetcar” will leave you emotionally exhausted, as the play’s themes manage to overcome time and place. Whether that is because of the actors’ obvious effort or the enduring power of Williams’ script remains up for debate.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” runs Oct. 31-Nov. 10 in the Stuart Theater.


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