Review: SummerFest’s A Streetcar Named Desire

Stanley (Evan Bergman) reasserts his authority over his home to his wife Stella (Ellie Clark) and sister-in-law Blanche (Bess Morgan). © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

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Rain and lightning finally cleared away enough Friday night for SummerFest to open its production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Still, steel gray clouds and gusty winds made for an appropriately stormy atmosphere for one of the American stage’s greatest works and one of its greatest drama queens, Blanche DuBois.

The Arboretum stage has not hosted Williams before, though it has presented many great Shakespearean tragedies including King Learand MacbethStreetcar certainly deserves to be on the same stage, and all three have been helmed at the Arboretum by Lexington’s master of drama, director Joe Ferrell.

The play is tough stuff, made all the more searing by Williams’ ability to create excruciatingly human characters and put poetic truths in their mouths. See the first scene between Blanche and her little sister Stella. As Blanche tells Stella how she lost their family home, her self-defensiveness is at an aggravating fever pitch, but she describes enduring the deaths in her family with vivid truthfulness.

That is Blanche, a woman who is infuriatingly arrogant but also clearly a victim of the circumstances of her life, raised in the refinement of a Southern plantation but now facing a much less accommodating world. She expresses astonishment that Stella, who is not having similar problems adapting, does not have a maid for the two-room apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter she shares with her husband, Stanley.

That sets the tone for the world Blanche longs for compared to the one she is in.

Stanley exemplifies that new world as a self-assured, sometimes primal and violent man for whom Blanche is really no match, particularly as her stories begin to unravel.

Stella has the unenviable task of refereeing these two, who are constantly pulling her to their sides. Ellie Clark makes Stella a self-assured woman who still has to bend to the wills of these strong personalities. Bergman plays Stanley as a gregarious fellow who too easily slips into his dark, violent side. But through his charisma, you see why people are attracted to him, from his bowling buddies to his loyal wife.

Bergman and Clark are a real-life couple, and they bring palpable chemistry to their performances. They lead two of this production’s best scenes: when Stanley airs his suspicions about the loss of Blanche and Stella’s family home, and later, when Stanley tells Stella what he has learned about Blanche’s life back home in Laurel, Miss. In both instances, Bergman manages his tone beautifully to highlight key portions of the scenes and come across as reasonable, albeit barely.

We have no doubt he does not like his sister-in-law.

And in Bess Morgan’s performance, Blanche is really hard to like.

Moments after appearing, she is operating at a shrill tenor, and for the most part stays there through Act I. Blanche is histrionic, but this one-note interpretation makes it difficult to muster much sympathy for her, something we really need for the play to have its full impact. Act II brings more nuance from Morgan, and a couple of engaging scenes including the one when she makes advances on a paperboy (Rob Schrader, acting appropriately weirded-out) and her recounting of her husband’s death. But Blanche’s charm never comes through the mumbling drawl Morgan developed for her character.

Tim Hull is perfectly cast as Stanley’s friend and Blanche’s sad sack suitor Mitch, one of numerous victims in this tragic tale.

The design team, including set designer Dathan Powell and costumers Joyce Anderson and Dennis Smail, give the show a solid but unobtrusive look. One great prop is the old-fashioned fan sitting atop the refrigerator, which on Friday frequently turned at full speed powered only by the wind.

In Streetcar, SummerFest has brought a good production of an American classic to the stage, but it would help if it, and particularly its leading lady, operated more like that fan that occasionally slowed down when the winds let up.

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