Theater of the American South’s initial run in Wilson opened with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and this year, founder Gary Cole’s creation has found perhaps its finest achievement with another play by Tennessee Williams, the most celebrated playwright of the American South.
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” which won a Pulitzer Prize for Williams, won over the opening night audience Friday at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center with a performance that milks all the power, emotion and pathos from Williams’ script. This production arrives as “Streetcar” has been revived on Broadway with an African-American cast and just months after Edna Boykin, benefactor of the arts in Wilson, has been laid to rest. It’s a production that would make Boykin or Williams proud.
Leaving the theater, it’s hard to imagine a more sympathetic, more tragic and more disturbing portrayal of Blanche Dubois than Betsy Henderson’s performance. She balances the conflicting elements of Blanche’s personality, her vulnerability, her self-deceit, her well-practiced false modesty, her manipulative flirtations, her lies, and her final tumble into madness.
Henderson’s is not the only bravura performance in this “Streetcar.” Lilly Nelson as Blanche’s sister Stella Kowalski is exceptional. Her repartee with Blanche when her wayward sister first arrives is a delight of sibling cohesion, and her passion for her rough-cut husband is palpable. When Blanche’s madness manifests itself in screaming excuses about the loss of the family manor, Nelson matches Henderson in volume and emotion. Williams provides the finely crafted lines, and these two actresses turn them into a convincing reality.
Stanley Kowalski is among the most recognizable characters in American drama, and as such is a challenge for any actor. Jason Sharp brings Stanley to life as a man shaped by his wartime experiences of male camaraderie and violence. He can be brutish as well as tender. He lives life with passion, passion for his wife and for poker. He is a man his manic sister-in-law cannot understand but is awed by and drawn to. And he is nobody’s fool, least of all Blanche’s. Sharp plays him as a multi-faceted man, full of flaws and qualities, but never as a domestic violence caricature a lesser actor could easily make him. Stanley and Blanche duel repeatedly, and each time Sharp and Henderson leave the audience gasping as their tension fills the theater.
Jason Peck as Mitch is a sheltered momma’s boy, the least manly of Stanley’s bowling, poker-playing, beer-drinking Army buddies. He is the only one who falls under Blanche’s spell. The two are perfectly matched in neediness, but Stanley insists upon forcing reality into their illusions. Two scenes capture their budding, then withering relationship, and Peck and Henderson display every aching need and raw pain of their characters.
Mary Floyd Page as Eunice Hubbell, the upstairs neighbor, provides a modicum of sensibility and sympathetic understanding toward both Blanche and Stella. The languid dialogue between Page and Nelson in the opening scene sets the play firmly in the South and establishes the verities of the characters. A supporting cast of Regenna Rouse, Miles Snow, George Kaiser, Nicholas Henderson, Page Purgar and Doug Nydick add all that is needed.
In a production that it’s difficult to say too many good things about, a few errant irritations distract the audience. A very effective and well-utilized set designed by Chris Bernier is inexplicably impaired by the placement of a large trunk that blocks the view of the stage from the right side of the theater in a couple of scenes. Surely the trunk, which is integral to the script, could have been placed elsewhere. Otherwise realistic 1940s costuming designed by Jordan Jaked seems to unravel with Blanche’s suit, which looks more like 1962 than like 1947. Director Marc Fajer has created such a wonderful package, including era-distinctive cigarette smoke, it’s embarrassing to point out a gap in the wrapping.
Nevertheless, this is a performance not to be missed, not only for the signature lines of “Stellaaaaaa!” and “I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers,” but for the entire powerful and lyrical script brought vividly to the stage by a troupe of very talented actors who give 65-year-old characters a new and timeless life. Rumbling and clanging, this “Streetcar Named Desire” will take Theater of the American South to new heights.