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Off Track

Mild Performances Mar Theatre Hopkins' Streetcar

James Gallagher and Katherine J'ger as Tennessee Williams' battling Kowalski

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/15/2000

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams

When that brutish character named Stanley Kowalski shouts "Stella!," how can you not hear Marlon Brando's voice? Immortalized in the 1951 movie version of Tennessee Williams' 1947 Broadway hit, Brando's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire hovers over any contemporary staging of the play. For that matter, you'll find yourself judging how well any other actor fills out Stanley's T-shirt.

Although Theatre Hopkins' new production of Streetcar, directed by Suzanne Pratt, doesn't deliver quite as much melodramatic punch as it could, it's a solid and sometimes quite moving reminder of how well Williams understood the passions and eccentricities that make us such a strangely compelling species. Deftly balancing satire and sympathy, the play thoroughly immerses us in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans where every neighbor knows your tawdry business--and there's no shortage of tawdry business here.

That city's French Quarter has accommodated any number of unusual people, but Blanche DuBois takes the cake. Presenting herself as a prim and proper small-town schoolteacher paying a surprise visit on her sister Stella and her uncouth brother-in-law Stanley, Blanche settles into their too-small apartment. She takes long baths, tells autobiographical stories that freely mix fact and fiction, and tangles with the beastly Stanley. Soon enough, it's clear she's just plain nuts.

Blanche's vulnerability and self-delusions are deeply affecting, and Williams makes her the weak person upon whom to build his strong play. His full-immersion treatment of this character is something to behold. Some of his scripting touches verge on the shameless--having a minor character hawk flowers for the dead outside the apartment window--but such near-camp flourishes ultimately enhance our sense of the extent to which theatricality is at the heart of this play.

The Theatre Hopkins production is blessed with a fine actress embodying Blanche. Cherie Weinert has all the fading-Southern-belle mannerisms down pat, and she manages to indulge in Blanche's vamping without descending into caricature. By the time she gets to the line about Blanche relying on the kindness of strangers, it comes across as a genuine sentiment and not simply a famous line encased within quotation marks.

Faring less well are the actors playing the Kowalskis. As Stanley, James Gallagher gives the impression of a nice fellow trying to portray a not-so-nice guy. Technically, Gallagher gives a good performance; he knows his lines and how Stanley should move through his cage-sized apartment. But it's a highly self-conscious performance, and that's one trait Stanley does not possess. Gallagher needs to seem more impulsive and dangerous. However, he has enough potential that one hopes some more nights knocking Stella and Blanche around will have him feeling like a natural brute.

Similarly, Katherine Jaeger's Stella is adequate, but her accent shifts just enough from one scene to the next to indicate she's still finding her way with this character, and she gives some flat line readings. Admittedly, Stella can be a difficult character to master: She willingly submits to Stanley's animal charisma, but she also is keenly aware of and willing to criticize his flaws.

The supporting characters are for the most part broadly written and played. A happy exception is Tom Blair as Harold Mitchell, a sensitive buddy of Stanley's who courts Blanche. There is a beautifully played scene between Weinert and Blair that demonstrates just how good this production can be when everything clicks.

On a technical note, the lighting transitions and scene changes in general need to be handled more smoothly. The Southern-hothouse atmosphere is all-important in this play, and nothing should snap the audience out of that melodramatic mood.

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