Playwright Tennessee Williams was a master of motifs, a sultan of symbolism. A Streetcar Named Desire, his magnum opus set in 1947 New Orleans, is packed with repeating themes and figures that heighten the main plot. Blanche, a down-on-her-luck Southern belle, is plagued by “The Varsouviana Polka” whenever her nerves act up and her grip on realty becomes more tenuous. Stanley, her meat-headed brother-in-law, is obsessed with his poker games and, eventually, calls Blanche’s bluff about her own past and promises of propriety. Stella, Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife, is so overcome by her powerful lust for Stanley—a lust personified by the baby she’s carrying—that she cannot see him for who he is and the pain he’s inflicting on her sister.
All of these components add up to form one of the greatest dramatic works of American theater. Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach flexes its dramaturgical muscle and proves its power of production in a stellar interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire, onstage now through November 3.
Director J. Barry Lewis clearly enjoys bringing the French Quarter of old to life. Anne Mundell’s scenic design pulsates with secrets and captures the claustrophobic humidity that permeates every single scene. Kirk Bookman’s lighting holds true to Williams’ desire to use darkness, shadow, and light as symbols for Blanche’s trauma and subsequent mental and behavioral distortions.
At the heart of the production are the three actors portraying this fairly odd family. As Stella, Annie Grier is a beacon of good-natured hope and maternal care. Grier accesses genuine emotion when presented with Blanche’s turmoil, and she captures the inherent anguish one faces when two family members not only dislike each other but spew hatred and indignation at every opportunity. The character of Stella is far more subdued than Blanche or Stanley, but she’s actually the nucleus of the action—and Grier happily helps her co-stars reach the emotional apex that the material demands.
Danny Gavigan is a dynamite Stanley in every sense of the word. He’s explosive, gritty, and apt to leave a trail of destruction wherever he goes. Not only does Gavigan have palpable chemistry with Grier, he also is a very convincing foil to Kathy McCafferty’s Blanche, slithering around their cramped apartment, inserting himself into every issue and argument, and pushing Blanche’s buttons in just the right way to orchestrate a mental breakdown. With any Stanley portrayal, one must cultivate an air of adoration and a hint of sensitivity, thus allowing the audience to believe that Stella would fall for this man. Gavigan delivers here, too—a feat that’s quite apparent in his reading of the famous “Stella!” yells in the first portion of the play.
Kathy McCafferty is a woman undone in her portrayal of Blanche DuBois—and it’s an absolute joy to behold. McCafferty embodies Blanche in every way, from her vocalization to her prickly nerves to her ill-placed girlish charms. It’s all a mask, one that continues to crack each day that Blanche stays in New Orleans, and McCafferty does a beautiful job of gradually unraveling Blanche and her understandable insecurities until her need for professional help is all too apparent. But despite her shortcomings, Blanche is true to her name, evoking a purity of spirit like that of an “orchard in spring.” Yes, she’s responsible for her misdeeds and dishonesty, but she’s also been dealt a pretty crappy hand. McCafferty knows how to thread this needle between empathy and enmity so that what remains is a hurt dove you just want to coddle.