(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Any theater company’s production of that classic of the American stage, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, must wrestle with a tricky problem – how to differentiate their interpretation from the 1951 film version, particularly the iconic performances of Marlon Brando as the brutish Stanley Kowalski and Vivien Leigh as the faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois.
Happily, Austin Shakespeare’s production, playing through Dec. 6 in the Long Center’s Rollins Studio Theater, marks just enough of a difference (while still staying true to the lyricism and sensuality of Williams’ text) to make it well worth seeing for a new understanding of the seminal play.
The linchpin of this production is Amber Quick as Stella Kowalski. In most versions of Streetcar, Stella can become almost disposable, a secondary character whose main role is to serve as a plaything or an object battled over by Stanley and Blanche. Quick, on the other hand, is the master manipulator of Austin Shakespeare’s Streetcar. She is at turns seductive, wily, charming, flirtatious, and sisterly, bending Stanley and Blanche to her will even as they think themselves the puppet-masters.
This is not to discount Andrew Hutcheson as Stanley and Gwendolyn Kelso as Blanche. Both do a superb job differentiating their performances from the iconic portrayals of these characters. Hutcheson’s Stanley recedes from the apishness made famous by Brando, relying far more on acidic bitterness and easy charm (as opposed to Brando’s pure animal magnetism).
For much of the play, Hutcheson makes Stanley Kowalski likable and identifiable, which is no small feat. Kelso, meanwhile, plays a Blanche who seems far less fragile than the usual portrayal. She knowingly toys with both Stanley and Stella, and seems far more aware of her own mistruths; she is not so much lying to herself as she is constructing an identity she wants the world to see. Michael Miller, as Mitch, has a particularly unique chemistry with Blanche, as his childishness speaks to her own dark inclinations and secret past.
These intriguing differences from typical productions of Streetcar owe much to the work of director Ann Ciccolella, who allows the characters to live and breathe within Williams’ world rather than imposing clever staging or theatrical tricks upon them. Even in the busier scenes of the play, the characters and their relationships are what matters most, with the entire stage picture designed to draw attention to the powerful craft of these talented actors.
Austin Shakespeare’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire truly makes a classic come alive, imbuing it with humor, sexiness, and a different take on its lead characters that makes it well worth seeing for fans of the play and newcomers alike.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” continues 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 6. Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center. $24-$42. thelongcenter.org