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As my regular blog readers know, I nearly fell into a coma as I ran out of superlatives after seeing Liv Ullmann’s minimalist, unsentimental Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire last year.  It had a truly definitive Blanche du Bois, imho, from the great Cate Blanchett as its center of gravity.  With the standards set so high for Streetcar, truly my favorite play of all time, a little part of me was prepared to be disappointed with David Cromer’s production at Writer’s Theater, his first work in Chicago after his Broadway debut last winter, despite the unanimous, worshipping critical raves it had already received.  But as the Sun Times’ Hedy Weiss says, it’s kinda pointless to compare and contrast Cromer’s Streetcar with any other versions of the play one has previously seen:  this production of Tennessee Williams’ great, legendary play stands proudly and singularly on its own – visceral, gutwrenching, voyeuristic, with towering performances, and startlingly, a shift in the dramatic center of gravity from Blanche (the focal point of most productions I’ve seen) to a freshly re-thought Stanley Kowalski, played to dazzling, ferocious perfection by Matt Hawkins.  I was breathless and exhilarated after the three hours on this Streetcar – I’d gladly haul my urban, non-847-area-code-friendly-self on the Metra back to Glencoe anytime for a production this terrific.

Although Cromer doesn’t introduce any genius reimaginings in this Streetcar like the mindblowing final scene of Our Town, he still makes many interesting, innovative directorial choices that made this unabashed groupie of the play view it almost like it was my first time.  Cromer and his brilliant scenic designer Collette Pollard has configured the performance area such that the audience feels like it is inside the Kowalskis’ cramped apartment, living and breathing in it, eavesdropping on the characters’ conversations, with some seats literally close to breaking the fourth wall, arranged within intimate touching distance to the actors.  Pollard and costumer designer Janice Pytel also intricately, excellently evoke the tawdriness of the milieu- from the cheap formica dinette set to the use of naked bulbs in the apartment to the plainness of Stella’s dresses, making it easy to understand the pretentious Blanche’s distaste for her sister’s present life.  This is also the one production I’ve seen where the small but pivotal role of the flower-seller, the horrifying harbinger of Blanche’s descent into madness, is indelibly directed and played (by Rosario Vargas, co-Artistic Director of Aguijon Theater Company, one of the city’s leading Latino theater groups). Vargas repeats the phrase “flores para los muertos” first in a mellifluous cadence which turns into a menacing one, and then ends with her looking inside the apartment, framed in the doorway, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-style, as she utters the final repetitions of the phrase.  Brilliant!  I’m ambivalent about Cromer’s decision to actually stage Blanche’s memories about the young husband who killed himself after she confronted him about his relationship with another man, usually never depicted onstage.  I think showing her discovery of her husband in bed with the other man isn’t necessary (despite the, ahem, male nudity), because the dream-like sense of that scene breaks the gritty, raw emotional pacing of the narrative that has been previously in play.  I think having him appear on the edge of the bed, though, smiling at her, as she is raped by Stanley, is powerful in conveying her deep-seated guilt, and her surrender to Stanley’s brutal violation as a punishment for that guilt.

I think the most important dramatic choices that Cromer makes, however, is in revisiting the four main characters that we all thought we knew because they have been such powerful cultural archetypes, and drawing out fresher, newer, layered readings from them.  Natasha Lowe’s Blanche isn’t your typical fluttery, artificial, grotesquely coquettish portrayal – looking, interestingly, like a young Jessica Tandy (who originated the role on Broadway), she is hard-edged, brittle, needy, her delicate pretension an incongruous and obvious put-on. Make no mistake about it, Lowe’s Blanche had the steely nerves to be plantation caretaker and family burial mistress on her own, furiously fighting for what little she had until she couldn’t anymore.  It is, at times, an unsympathetic performance – when she berates Stella for coming back to make love to Stanley after he beat her, you’re rooting for Stella to slap her for her acid-tongued nagging.  It is also, many times over, a heartachingly lonely one.  When she tells Mitch about her young husband, the heartbreak is palpable.  Lowe gives a stunningly realized, highly complicated performance.  Stacey Stoltz’s excellent Stella is an earthier, more sensual one than I’ve seen in the past, a Stella whose attraction to Stanley is deeply and mutually physical, a woman who has let go of her affluent upbringing and has assimilated, quite well, into her current social milieu.  Danny McCarthy’s equally excellent Mitch has less of the moral righteousness that you have come to expect from this character, and more of the social awkwardness, the inarticulateness, and the middle-aged loneliness of a man who’s never found the right partner in life.

But the greatest achievement of this Streetcar is the startling, intriguing, and ultimately successful portrayal of Stanley Kowalski.  Matt Hawkins, whose directorial genius I recently raved about in The Hypocrites’ Cabaret, my choice for the best production of the Chicago spring theater season, brings the same kind of brilliance, thoughtfulness, and level of game to performing.  Hawkins’ Stanley is less of an animalistic, uncouth brute as he is an immature young guy, thrust into responsibilities at home and at work that he is not prepared for, puzzled and a little bit intimidated by the unwelcome visit of a relative he doesn’t know (I love the detail of Stanley throwing his bowling ball on the floor every time he comes home, like a kid dumping his books from school).  He then over-compensates for these weaknesses through a combination of bluster, cockiness, and tantrums – a machismo that is as much of a put-on as Blanche’s haughty airs.  In the scene when he confronts her about the loss of Belle Reve and the implication of Louisiana’s Napoleonic Law, you can almost see his confidence and belligerence peter out as Blanche fiercely lashes back at him and dumps all of her paper files on his lap.  In the iconic scene when Stanley yells “Stella!” to get his wife to come back to their apartment, Hawkins is magnificent, not only in the shattering emotional pain he evokes with the scream, but also in his little-boy-lostness, weeping, looking forlorn and confused kneeling down in his wet underwear, waiting for her to re-appear.  I think it is interesting to think that Stanley’s rape of Blanche is less driven by lustful desires and/or assertion of power, traditional readings of this scene, but rather by confusion and a little bit of fear, and that the only way for him to keep her from running out of the apartment and into the street is for him to sodomize her.  Hawkins performance in this scene tantalizes you with this thought.   

This is a thrilling Streetcar, with Cromer and his fantastic cast and designers drawing so much new insights and readings from Williams’ classic text.  It is a Streetcar that confirms Cromer’s centrality to the artistic life of his hometown, which he hopefully returns to re-energize in between his Broadway gigs (he’s directing both Picnic and Yanks! this fall).   It is a Streetcar that erases any doubt once and for all that Chicago is the best town for theater in this part of the world.

A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, Illinois, until July 11.  If you consider yourself a true theater lover, then I don’t see any reason why you’re not taking that Metra or renting a Zipcar to go to the suburbs for this brilliant production.

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