“The world is violent and mercurial – it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love – love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” Tennessee Williams to James Grissom (author of “Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog”), New Orleans, 1982
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9, New International Version
There may be nothing new under the sun, but the loving grace of good art creates the welcome illusion of originality. It’s welcome because that illusion encourages us to see and hear in ways we often don’t when confronted with something that feels familiar. (That familiarity simply breeds contempt, according to Geoffrey Chaucer and so many others down the centuries…)
Such loving grace is powerfully present as one watches Nashville Repertory Theatre’s current production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” That means it’s easy to forget you read the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in school, that you’ve seen stage presentations in the past or watched the altered shape it took as a 1951 film, as you watch the vibrant work now on searing display in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater.
Director Nat McIntyre clearly understands the challenge of bringing such a venerated 20th Century American drama to a 21st Century stage. “The trap that must be avoided is to present a masterpiece from the past as a piece of art hanging in a museum,” he writes in his play program note. “That lets us off the hook. And Tennessee Williams was certainly not interested in letting anyone off the hook.”
First, McIntyre has assembled a team of artisans to make the play’s world come alive in setting, costumes, lighting and more. Gary C. Hoff (in his 20th season at the Rep) gives us a richly detailed set for the humble Elysian Fields apartment where Stanley and Stella Kowalski live, love, laugh and fight; Matt Logan’s costumes are the perfect fit of fabrics, colors and contours from seven decades ago; Phillip Franck’s lighting design (particularly during the play’s climatic scene) morosely illuminates the action without intruding on it; and Kyle Odum fits the syncopated sounds of “Streetcar” seamlessly into the piece. In mentioning those offering their talents to this show I’d be remiss to leave out Nettie Kraft, who oversees the fine dialect work for this production – good dialect work illuminates and engages, while bad distracts and destroys believability, so it’s vitally importance to the performance – and the very believable fight choreography of Carrie Brewer.
Second, he’s cast well in all roles. James Crawford makes a heartbreakingly sensitive Mitch; Matthew Benenson Cruz’s energy as Pablo is perfect; James Randolph and Merrie Shearer give us complete characterizations as Steve and Eunice, the upstairs neighbors and landlords of the Kowalskis. Connor Weaver and Melinda Sewak ably appear in more than one guise during the proceedings, but most notably as the doctor and nurse in the final scene; and as the Young Collector, Brooks Bennett is the personification of pure youth.
The primary challenge to playing Stella Kowalski is that her husband Stanley and sister Blanche DuBois can easily suck all the air out of the room; to believe she can more than handle breathing that same air, to show the steel behind Stella’s smile, is no easy task. That’s why Tamiko Robinson Steele (no pun intended from that previous sentence) is just what Stella needs – a superb actor that shows every shade of Stella’s humanity and makes us understand why her character not only survives but thrives in a human hothouse.
Eric D. Pasto-Crosby brilliantly conveys the brutishness (down to his walk and stances) and tenderness in Stanley. We don’t condone much of what he says and does – including the abhorrent violence he inflicts on Stella and Blanche – but we understand his tremendously flawed humanity through the lens of Pasto-Crosby’s performance. His pain and rage is palpable, but so is his love and need for Stella.
The highest compliment this one-time actor can give players is that I don’t see them in the role. That is most certainly true of the utterly incredible Pipeline-Collective Co-Producing Artistic Director Karen Sternberg in her Nashville Rep main stage debut as Blanche; she dives so deeply into the troubled, crumbling psyche of her character that I forgot while watching that I’d ever seen her in anything else or even met her anywhere else. There’s so much to praise about her performance, but I think all well-deserved plaudits for her portrayal stem from the way she believably, patiently, excruciatingly builds Blanche’s fantasy-to-lunacy descent. Even those with just a passing “Streetcar” familiarity know what’s coming – “Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” – and yet, when it comes out of Sternberg’s mouth in a tone of self-aware, fatalistic resignation, the effect is a stunning thunderclap to our collective spirit.
In an essay published in The New York Times four days before “Streetcar” had its 1947 Broadway premiere (headlined “Tennessee Williams on a Streetcar Named Success”), Williams asked, “Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.” McIntyre and his Nashville Rep colleagues have made a very dynamic and expressive “Streetcar” that pays proper tribute to the masterful talent that wrote it while gracing us with their good and oh-so-humanely-relevant work.
In addition to those mentioned in the review the following are significant contributors to this production: assistant director Claire Hopkins; stage manager Teresa Driver; assistant stage manager Kristen Goodwin; production director Christopher L. Jones; props master Amanda Creech; scene shop foreman R. Preston Perrin; master carpenter Tucker Steinlage; costume manager Lori Gann-Smith; wardrobe supervisor Lakeland Gordon; costume technician Lauren Elizabeth Terry; rentals manager Emily Irene Peck; artistic associate Erica Jo Lloyd; Maggie Jackson and Karch Abramson, run crew.
Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” continues through Sunday. February 23 in Johnson Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.