Theatre Review: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Theatre Buford

Courtney Patterson as Blanche DuBois.

If you’re looking for a theater experience “outside the loop”, as Intowners call it, then by all means make your way north to Theatre Buford’s moving, soaring version of Tennessee Williams’ masterwork “A Streetcar Named Desire.” On stage at the Buford Community Center through March 3, the production is directed by Daniel Thomas May.

I’m always taken aback when I contemplate the power and beauty of this play, which opened on Broadway in December, 1947, two years after World War II; yet the dialogue sounds as if it were written yesterday. Time Magazine writer T. E. Kalem once said of this play, “The inevitability of a great work of art is that you cannot imagine the time when it didn’t exist.”

I understand exactly what he meant. I cannot recall a time when this play was not in my consciousness; I knew it in college, but I think even before that. It towers above the plateau of ordinary plays: From the opening lines the characters lift us to a new realm of desire, longing, devastation, and yes, even humor. Marlon Brando, the original Stanley, modestly said, “In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ we had under us one of the best written plays ever produced, and we couldn’t miss.”

The setting is the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche DuBois (Courtney Patterson), an out-of-work high school English teacher, has come to visit her younger sister Stella (Stephanie Friedman) in her so-so French Quarter apartment. Stella is married to a rough-hewn factory worker named Stanley Kowalski (Justin Walker), and they are quite content in their colorful, humble abode. Upstairs are Steve (Chris Hecke) and Eunice (Shakira Demesier), their two uninhibited neighbors.

Blanche and Stella grew up in a fine old home in Mississippi called Belle Reve (“beautiful dream”). It’s now gone. Blanche cannot understand how Stella “can live under these conditions.” She especially cannot conceive how Stella can live with Stanley, whom she finds “common” and “bestial.”

Stanley takes an instant dislike to Blanche, especially when he learns that Belle Reve has been lost. He’s sure she has absconded with the money from the home place when he observes Blanche’s nice clothes, furs, and jewelry (all fake). To Stella he says, “Here’s your plantation, or what was left of it, here!” Stella says he’s being ridiculous.

There’s a ray of hope for Blanche, for awhile, in Mitch (Eric Lang), who works with Stanley and visits the Kowalskis for poker parties; he seems to have the gentlemanly qualities that Blanche is seeking. (Did you know that the first title Williams considered for his play was “The Poker Night”? I’ve awfully glad he changed it.)

Courtney Patterson and Justin Walker as Stanley.

I can’t tell you much more of the plot; you must see the play. I hope you do, for it’s rare to find a cast who can do this play justice. The lines seem so easy at first reading; but you need actors with genuine talent, and happily, Theatre Buford has found a terrific cast.

I must commend the actors for tackling what I consider (and I’m not alone) the greatest American play—which has the most incredible dialogue. The diction is a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity, yet raised magically to a poetic, lyrical level. It becomes truly hypnotic, and its effect on an audience is stunning. As I watched this production, I held my breath, because wonder of wonders, it gets better and better. I started to tear up, and a major reason for this is Courtney Patterson.

Ms. Patterson, playing what has been called “the American female Hamlet,” needs finesse, cultivated femininity, sensitivity, and fragility on one hand; but she must also be flirtatious and have a bit of the tiger in her (Williams said that). In addition, her psyche is slowly disintegrating, so that her final line, “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is both heartbreaking and shattering. Ms. Patterson has it all.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as moved watching this play, as when Blanche is brought to desperation and tears, when Stanley and the world come crashing down on her. It’s an incredible, memorable performance.

And miraculously, her cast mates are also wonderful. Stephanie Friedman’s Stella shows a refined young woman who now is very happy to “hang back with the brutes,” as Blanche puts it. Yet Ms. Friedman’s performance is subtle and shows complexities of Stella often overlooked. Her Stella truly loves her sister; but she loves Stanley a little bit more.

Mr. Walker’s Stanley has the crudeness and power that one associates with Stanley; yet we’re also impressed by the tenderness he can show Stella. He refuses to be one-dimensional and though “he’s like an animal” (as Blanche says) at times, he makes one wonder what would have happened had “sister Blanche” not appeared.

Courtney Patterson, Justin Walker and Stephane Friedman as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Eric Lang more than does justice to a role (Mitch) that can be overwhelmed by the other three. But his Mitch is as good as bread, the salt of the earth. But he’s definitely not the “cleft in the rock of the world” that Blanche wanted to hide in.

I must say that Chris Hecke and Shakira Demesier both bring enormous vitality and humor to Steve and Eunice. The play needs that balance. There truly are no small parts.

Benny Higgins (the Young Collector), Bryan Montemayor, Emily McClain, and Dan Reichard complete this memorable cast.

I commend Daniel May’s thoughtful, meticulous direction. Tennessee Williams said the original play’s director Elia Kazan was absolutely vital for the play’s success. So is Mr. May, known very well for his acting.

The theatre itself (the physical plant) is a charming, intimate surprise (to this viewer). This major work has one intermission and runs almost three hours. The time flies by. See “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

For more information, visit bufordcommunitycenter.com.

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