Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Players' Ring

The Williams masterwork, in Portsmouth
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 5, 2011

theater_streetcar_main
ALL IN WHITE Constance Witman as Blanche.

Fairly or not, my most immediate association with A Streetcar Named Desire tends to be Brando and his inimitable mournful bellow. But that's a shame — Tennessee Williams's hothouse tragedy is far too rich in its relationships to let one Stanley eclipse all its subtleties. A particularly sensitive Streetcar is on stage at The Players' Ring, in Portsmouth, where under the direction of Meredith Freeman-Caple, the dynamics between Blanche (Constance Witman) and Stella (Christine Penney), and between Blanche and her "beau" Mitch (Andy Fling), are every bit as arresting as her infamous animosity with Stanley (Scott Caple).

The Ring's intimate, brick-enclosed three-quarters round makes for a fine French Quarter apartment: In the old bricked-off Colonial window frames are bright flower boxes, and the cheerfully common materials of Stanley and Stella Kowalski's apartment — the ripped red vinyl of the kitchen chairs, the mismatched glasses — are contained in a small but very open space. The set designer (also Scott Caple) adds some nice touches to emphasize this sense of openness, including wild vinery, mere suggestions of doors, a free-hanging window back-lit by blue, and a flight of stairs ascending to Eunice and Steve's apartment: The overall effect is of neighborhood lives utterly porous to each other, of close, informal proximity.

All of which qualities, of course, are anathema to Blanche: Entering this sultry, crowded world of sweat and loud laughter, Stella's refined sister looks like a white crepe flower (costuming is superb) dropped into an urban jungle. And Witman, as the fading belle, is simply exquisite. Her delicate facial features and her low, velvety voice are finely tuned instruments for conveying now Blanche's wry disdain, now her hysteria. She often makes Blanche disarmingly funny, somebody with whom it'd be fun to be snarky over a martini, and always present is her intimidating and highly entertaining intelligence, which is vital to her tragedy: This Blanche is not just a pitiably delusional woman out of place and out of time. Instead, her acuity, rolled eyes, and mercury-quick comebacks make her weaknesses and eventual downfall all the more affecting.

Against Blanche, Penney's loose, exuberant movements and higher, bird-song voice as Stella pose a striking contrast, and this production is notable for the complexity of the sisters' rapport. Penney's Stella is immensely sympathetic, with a painful awareness of how irreconcilable are her loves for her sister and her husband.

As that husband hulking between Blanche and Stella, Caple excels at conjuring the simple sexuality he shares with Stella, as well as the crude animus he directs at Blanche. When he is alone with her, and particularly when they're both drinking, they bait each other with a rather thrilling sense of common pugnacity that neither shares with Stella. Caple is also adept at communicating Stanley's insecurities in his posture and face, though at other times he needs more acute menace, and though his climactic scene with Blanche could be drawn out and given more charge.

The triangle of these three characters typically dominates the play, but this production also makes gorgeously harrowing work of Blanche's ill-fated romance. Fling's Mitch has the emotional intelligence to be aware of all the ways he is inadequate to Blanche's intellect and breeding, of his every clumsy move and gauche remark. Their scenes together are both touching and excruciating.

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