Thirty years after his death, Tennessee Williams remains the greatest of American playwrights. He was a master of both language and characterization, and while many of his contemporaries no longer seem to speak to us, Williams' plays are as rich and compelling as when they were released.
For the final production of its 40th anniversary season, the Star Bar Players decided to take on Williams' most iconic work, the 1947 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama A Streetcar Named Desire. It's a demanding play for actors and theatergoers alike — and I'm not just talking about its three-hour length. The emotions are raw, the brutality shocking, and you just know the ending is going to break your heart.
Star Bar gets the brutality exactly right. Punches are thrown, bottles shattered, bodies slam into bodies with set-shaking force, and more than once I quite literally felt my breath knocked out of me.
It's in the quieter moments that the production sometimes falls short, failing to give the characters all the complexity they deserve.
From the moment she steps onto the stage, Alysabeth Clements Mosley commands both our sympathy and our attention as Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle who has arrived in New Orleans to find refuge with her sister Stella after the loss of their ancestral estate. Blanche is disturbed to find Stella living in a shabby two-room apartment, but she soon focuses her disgust on a more suitable target: Stella's brutish husband Stanley.
"Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by," Blanche says, "and there he is — Stanley Kowalski — survivor of the Stone Age!"
The last time I saw Dylan Mosley on stage he was playing the cocky, high-powered lawyer in Star Bar's production of God of Carnage. When I heard he'd been cast as Stanley, a role made famous in the 1951 film adaptation by a ripped, T-shirt-wearing Marlon Brando, I seriously doubted whether he could pull it off.
I shouldn't have. Mosley gives a stunning performance — perhaps the best of his career — proving his chameleon-like ability to play any role. His Stanley is brutish, to be sure, but there's a brain behind his brawn, a sharp-eyed intelligence that watches Blanche warily, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness.
Forced into the role of peacekeeper is Stella, played by Crystal Carter. With her stiff-lipped demeanor, Carter nicely captures Stella's resigned attitude toward life, and the couple of times that she gives in to her despair, it's quite moving. But for the most part, her performance is flat. We never see the passion which first drew Stella to Stanley and which continues to keep her under his spell.
As the story moves toward its fateful conclusion, Stanley learns that Blanche is not what she seems, and he wields this knowledge like a club, driving the already delusional woman further into her fantasies. While Clements Mosley does a beautiful job embodying Blanche's fragility, she lacks the coquettishness that got Blanche into trouble in the first place, and never gives us a sense of her character's loosening grip on reality.
Surprisingly, the strongest arc comes in the character of Mitch, Blanche's would-be suitor. In just three scenes, Mark Sullivan — who looks like a big teddy bear — goes from reserved to romantic to ruthless, and he makes every step of that journey convincing.
The set is appropriately seedy in a charming sort of way. Unfortunately, during our visit the other technical elements were a mess. Star Bar installed a new lighting kit for this production, but on opening night it seemed as though workers were still figuring out the controls. Lights flickered annoyingly or turned on and off at random, often leaving actors unlit in the middle of a scene. The sound cues were equally distracting, cutting in and out so abruptly that they pulled me right out of the play.
One last thing: Star Bar decided to use real cigarettes in this show, and while I applaud the commitment to authenticity, the smoke quickly fills the confined space of the theater. If you have allergies, you might want to prepare yourself. After all, you can't always depend upon the kindness of Salems.