Oh, what a night in Baltimore Wednesday. One year after the Freddie Gray violence, there was a festive air downtown as people of all stripes thronged the streets, cafes and restaurants as they made their way to the Bruce Springsteen concert, the Orioles game or the theaters. Iconic cries rang in the air—“Bruuuuuuuuuce!” “OOOOOOOOOO’s!” and of course, “Stelllllaaaa!”
That last cry came courtesy of Everyman’s voluptuous production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ poetry-mad rumination on dashed dreams and crushing reality versus genteel delusions, which is running in repertory with Arthur Millers’ Death of a Salesman.
Those genteel delusions are clasped to the scented bosom of Blanche DuBois (Beth Hylton), whose mind wanders back—far too often—to a time of cotillions, beaux and summer furs pinned with silk violets.
Blanche is a remnant of the fanciful plantation-era South that may not have existed in the first place. For instance, once Blanche gets past the white columns and sweeping lawn of her family’s now-lost plantation, Belle Rive, her narrative turns gothic with tales of decay and ever-present death.
She serves as metaphor for an old-timey America—where people were mannerly, knew their place and abided by conventions and social strata. Not like the brash postwar era Blanche finds herself in—where people say whatever they feel like, take what they want and the lower classes claw and connive their way to a better life.
Hylton’s Blanche may be a metaphor of loveliness gone by, but she is no flitty, doomed moth. Her mental state is precarious and she’s in a lip-lock with liquor, but this Blanche is not a fragile ghost of a belle but in-the-flesh, in-your-face real, one of those people who can fill a room with their presence, their scent, their accoutrements.
That larger-than-life quality is Blanche’s undoing after she comes to New Orleans and overstays her welcome at her younger sister Stella’s (Megan Anderson) two-room apartment one summer. The forlorn structure from Salesman has been transformed by Daniel Ettinger into an overflowing sprawl of fancy grillwork, winding staircases and other florid trappings of French Quarter courtyard apartment buildings. A singer, Kelli Blackwell, drifts through this frowsy, exotic setting, setting the sultry mood with standards such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”
Blanche is dropped into the world of Stella’s husband Stanley (Danny Gavigan), blue-collar and proudly red, white and blue world of poker games, beer, bowling and brawling — which is usually followed by noisy make-up sex with their women, whom they slap around from time to time.
Blanche, swanning around in 1920s and 30s frocks (David Burdick designed her once-elegant ensembles, turns Stanley’s man cave into a place of spilled powder, lace coverlets and twilight lighting. The volatile Stanley pops his cork at the notion his castle has turned into a femme den. He regains control of his wife and his roost in a cruel, ham-fisted way—it’s like he’s randomly punching his way out of a bell jar—and Blanche is his prime target.
And for a while, she proves a valiant match for Stanley, winning over Stanley’s working class pal Mitch (Chris Genebach) and the audience with her charm and buttery disdain. Hylton lends musicality to Blanche’s voice and delivery, so it sounds like a melody whether she’s ripping Stanley a new one or describing moonlight swims at the lake.
What you love about this production, expertly directed by Derek Goldman, is its physicality—the mingling of heft and delicacy, brutality and finer feelings. You see it in Blanche and Stanley, certainly, but also in Anderson’s Stella, a modern woman caught between her crazy desire for her husband, her proper upbringing and the rapidly-changing new world where a woman can stand up for herself. Anderson is an assured and strong Stella, enthralled by sexual pleasure but not so blind that she doesn’t see her future lies with the driven Stanley, not with the Old South represented by Blanche.
If you haven’t fallen under Blanche’s clingy spell already, attention will be paid (to borrow from the neighboring Death of a Salesman) in the final scenes when Blanche rises to her downfall. As the men in the front room drink and play poker, Stella and Eunice prepare Blanche as if attending a queen, packing her suitcase with epic care, seeing to her toilette and abiding her eleventh hour fancies.
She emerges from the bedroom a shadow of the woman in the wedding cake hat we meet in the first act—but still as luminous and singular as the light from the Chinese paper lantern she once placed over the naked bulb in Stella’s bedroom. Look. We have made enchantment.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams . Directed by Derek Goldman . Featuring: Beth Hylton, Megan Anderson, Danny Gavigan, Chris Genebach, Dawn Ursula, Bruce Randolph Nelson, Deborah Hazlett, Carl Schurr, Arturo Tolentino, Tavish Forsyth, Chloe Mikala, Kelly Blackwell . Set Design: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgess II . Costume Design: David Burdick . Sound Design: Chas Marsh. Wig Design: Denise O’Brien. Fight Choreography: Lewis Shaw. Props Master: Jillian Mathews. Dialects: Gary Logan. Dramaturgy: Johanna Gruenhut. Stage Manager: Amanda M. Hall. Assistant Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Running in repertory with Death of a Salesman though June 10 at Everyman Theatre