Clarkson gets Blanche, right down to her fingertips

TheaterReview

May 15, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The Kennedy Center's production of A Streetcar Named Desire leaves no doubt that Blanche DuBois is imprisoned by her future as well as her past. The notion of a prison is reinforced by vertical bars on the two main windows at the back of designer John Lee Beatty's New Orleans tenement set.

The imagery of the metal bars may make this production - part of the Kennedy Center's four-month "Tennessee Williams Explored" festival - sound heavy-handed. But director Garry Hines' staging and particularly Patricia Clarkson's portrayal of Blanche are remarkably understated.

Clarkson seems to take a while to get into the mammoth role of Blanche. But as the production continues, that initial impression appears intentional. It's an intrinsic part of the actress' characterization of this faded Southern belle as a woman so fragile, so desperate and so scared that her every move is tentative.

Clarkson's performance extends all the way to her elegant, nervous fingertips. Hers is a performance whose subtlety reveals some often overlooked aspects of this iconic role. Clarkson's Blanche, for example, has a sense of humor - a defense mechanism that takes the form of sarcastic wit. Even more significantly, there's a warm, genuine bond between her and Amy Ryan's Stella, the younger sister in whose squalid home Blanche seeks refuge.

Indeed, if it were just Ryan's sweet, forgiving Stella on whom Blanche relied, her fate would be different. But Stella is married to - and thoroughly infatuated with - a man, Stanley, whose crude behavior is antithetical to that of refined Blanche.

Adam Rothenberg's boyishly boorish Stanley could use more fire at times, but his performance, with Clarkson's, illuminates an important similarity between these rival characters. Both are all too readily motivated by desire (Blanche in the past; Stanley in the present). And that raw emotion has dire consequences for each of them.

Besides Stella, there's one other gentle-natured character in Williams' excoriating drama - Stanley's friend Mitch, the soft, aging momma's boy on whom Blanche sets her hopes for salvation. Noah Emmerich's depiction of this sad gentleman is so nuanced and sympathetic that, in the end, Mitch's despair mirrors the heartbreak Blanche suffered when she lost the love of her life as a young woman.

Not everything about Hines' production is this effective. The director is wise to try for something different in the often-parodied scene in which Stanley bellows for the return of the wife he has just abused. It's just plain odd to see Stanley shinny up a pole in the kitchen and yell at the ceiling that separates him from Stella. And, although Williams' drama certainly shouldn't be hurried, that doesn't justify tedious scene changes.

All of the design elements are first-rate, beginning with Beatty's set, which, though more expansive than the Kowalski apartment should be, nonetheless manages to feel claustrophobic. Howell Binkley's lighting and Scott Lehrer's sound design add just the right blend of eerie fantasy and grim reality that is the core of this play.

An Irish director best known in this country for staging the violent productions of Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West on Broadway, Hines is surprisingly restrained with Streetcar - a play with just as much opportunity for savagery. But while her respectful approach doesn't break major new ground, it is a solid interpretation offering a number of refreshingly distinctive insights.

Theater

What: A Streetcar Named Desire

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays; through May 30

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: 800-444-1324

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