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We Have Created Enchantment

by John Rodat on April 6, 2011 · 1 comment

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams, directed by Agnes Kapusta Skiff, Confetti Stage, through April 10

Hamlet is widely regarded as the ultimate theatrical role for male actors, and many of the stage’s (and screen’s) best and most celebrated have taken it on. It is that very number and variety that prevent the announcement of a single defining performance. So, if asked to identify the iconic dramatic performance of a stage actor, the popular vote would likely be Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (albeit that familiarity is from the 1951 movie version rather than from the 1947 Broadway production).

And, of course, no director in his or her right mind would ask or expect an actor to “do it like Marlon did.” In the current Confetti Stage production, Andrew James Poole plays Stanley as a sneering, derisive bully. Poole’s performance has none of the vulnerability or the sensuality of Brando’s Stanley. Though the production is set, as the original, in the late ’40s, Poole’s abusive thug would be as at home in an episode of The Wire (or Cops).

This is a Stanley you’re glad that your own sister is not dating; which raises the question as to why the seemingly sweet-natured and tolerant Stella (Jennifer Van Iderstyne) is. The answer to that question, in this production, is the thrust of the play and is provided, in a marvelous rush of nerve-shattered energy, by Michelle Smith-Carrigan as Stella’s elder sister, Blanch DuBois.

Blanch has arrived at her sister’s run-down New Orleans apartment after, she says, taking a leave of absence from her high-school teaching job in their hometown of Laurel, Mississippi. It is easy to believe Blanch’s contention that she needed the vacation just to gain some calm—her alternating fits of giddiness and desperation, boastfulness and self-pity clearly indicate her fragility. But soon enough Blanch’s story unravels, revealing deeper complications and greater sadness.

Smith-Carrigan navigates Blanch’s mercurial shifts of emotional tone superbly. She is coquettish, childlike, maudlin, witty, ingratiating, haughty and cruel in the span of seconds. The strain of maintaining a veneer of Old South femininity as a cover for her sense of loss and emptiness has made Blanch brittle. She has become a kind of caveat of frustrated appetite—one that her sister instinctively, perhaps, heeds. The scenes between Smith-Carrigan and Van Iderstyne are the play’s best, dramatically juxtaposing the sisters’ different routes to escape: an affected and delusional gentility, on the one hand, and a brutal blue-collar hedonism, on the other.

Viewers familiar with the film version of Streetcar may miss the more complex and charismatic portrayal of Stanley; but the de-emphasis on the role draws to attention that central tension in Tennessee Williams’s play, one well carried by Van Iderstyne and, particularly, Smith-Carrigan. Additional players— Stephen Henel as Blanch’s suitor Mitch, James Gaudreau and Joan Meyer as landlords Steve and Eunice Hubbell—do good work evoking the socially claustrophobic and gritty N’awlins neighborhood.

The opening night performance had a couple of technical difficulties: a missed sound-effect cue, or two, and some misdirected lighting that left speakers in the dark, at times. But, assuming those glitches will be worked out over the run, Confetti Stage’s A Streetcar Named Desire is a solid production of an interesting take on a classic, with a lead performance well worth your while.