REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Writer’s Theatre)

A wrenching ‘Streetcar’ of desire

 

streetcar01

  
Writers’ Theatre presents
  
A Streetcar Named Desire
  
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (map)
through July 11  tickets: $65  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

David Cromer has quite a gift. Apparently, he can rescue any brilliant yet overdone play from the annals of community theatre and breathe a vibrant energy into those dusty scripts. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe considering his ingenious productions of Our Town and Picnic. We can now add to the pile of evidence his A Streetcar Named Desire over at Writers’ Theatre.

streetcar03 This production is a revival in the true sense of the word. Instead of hashing out a bland carbon copy, Cromer finds all kinds of unique tricks in Tennessee’s text but all the while he maintains a sacred reverence for Williams and his blistering story. As a result, his Streetcar is as searing as July in the French Quarter.

The play, Williams’ finest, is epic in scale. It explores domestic abuse, deceit, homosexuality in post-WWII America, love, and a ton of sex, along with Chekhovian-style class conflicts. Cromer gathers all of this and crams it onto the tiny stage at Writer’s. Collette Pollard’s brilliantly intimate design places the audience a few feet away from the action. You cannot help but feel voyeuristic as you watch Stella, Stanley, and Blanche claw and clutch at each other.

What makes the production crash along, however, are the individualistic, desperate performances. From his first step on-stage, Matt Hawkins makes some bizarre choices as Stanley. He’s sleazy, cocky, yet lovable. Even though he explodes often, he’s not incessantly threatening. He has to frequently remind himself that he is king of his castle, making him a man and not a monster. Hawkins makes no attempt at a Brando impression, but Writer’s production doesn’t need nor want that. It also helps that he shares the stage with two powerful females—Natasha Lowe’s reserved Blanche and Stacy Stoltz’s compelling Stella. Lowe doesn’t steep Blanche in sexuality, but pushes her cold shrewdness instead. She slashes away at those around her as she is ripped apart herself. Lowe’s Blanche is neither saint nor villain. Stoltz, Hawkins’ real-life wife, turns in some great work in a part that can be overlooked if a director isn’t careful. I’m used to her performing in stylized pieces with The Hypocrites and House Theatre, so it was refreshing to see her in some classic American realism. Her Stella is a fighter, refusing to be steamrolled by Stanley’s machismo. The relationship between the two is fascinating to watch unfold—you can sense real love between them, not just animal desire (although there is a lot of that, inches away from our seats). This forces us to ask if love is enough for a marriage, because their love is definitely not healthy. Although Stanley is convinced all their problems stem from Blanche, to us there seems to be a fundamental disconnect.

stacy-stoltz-as-stella streetcar02

Throughout the piece, Cromer sprinkles in original tweaks that make the production shine and resonate. The ghosts that sweep through Blanche’s mind are put on stage, for example. Williams’ script is also hyper-sexualized here. The production would never pass censors in the 1950s, but today it rips open the major theme of the play: desire. Cromer seems to have a desire for flame on-stage, because he utilizes it so well. The scene between Blanche and Mitch (the laudable Danny McCarthy), where Blanche lays out some secrets, is stunning because most of it is lit by candlelight alone. Cromer is brave and bold—many of his choices bring the audience into his characters’ heads, especially the unstable Blanche.

My one critique of the show is that there are some sightline issues, deriving from both the cramped set and some of the staging. At times it seemed like turning the actors a few degrees would have solved it, which is why it became a bit pesky. However, it was not nearly enough to derail my involvement with this piece. Cromer corrals us into this world, and the powerful ensemble drags us along whether we like heading towards the impending cliff or not. When the house lights finally turn on, it feels like a tiny chunk of your soul has been ripped away.

   
  
Rating: ★★★★
 
 

streetcar02

FEATURING: Loren Lazerine, Natasha Lowe, Danny McCarthy, Rosario Vargas, Matt Hawkins, Jenn Engstrom, Esteban Andres Cruz, Stacy Stoltz, Carolyn E. Nelson, Derek Hasenstab and Ryan Hallahan

PRODUCTION TEAM
Scenic Design by Collette Pollard
Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert
Costume Design by Janice Pytel
Sound Design by Josh Schmidt
Properties Design by Meredith Miller

REVIEW: Side Man (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

Haunting "Side Man" plays ‘Taps’ over jazz heyday

 SideMan3

 

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents

 

Side Man
 
By Warren Leight
Directed by Lauren Rawitz
Metropolis Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
Through April 18 (more info)
 
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Poignant and darkly comic, Warren Leight’s Side Man, deftly bridges the parallels between the downward spiraling personal life of a jazz musician and the diminishing popularity of his genre. Lauren Rawitz’s enthralling production for Metropolis Performing Arts Centre brings the colorful characters of the big band era to vivid life.

SideMan6The autobiographical story, inspired by the life of the playwright’s father, jazz trumpeter Donald Leight, covers 1953 to 1985. Clifford, the narrator, recounts the incidents in his parents’ lives, sliding backwards and forward in time through their tumultuous relationship and declining fortunes.

In jazz parlance, a side man is a freelance musician. Able to solo, play backup parts and blend in with a band as needed, side men play with various groups, taking gigs with whomever needs an extra player. Although often talented and hailed by other musicians, they rarely achieve the public acclaim or income given to the star bandleaders and their regular players.

Even during the heyday of the big bands, it was an unstable life. With the rise of rock ’n’ roll, jazz side men moved from busy professionals to peripatetic performers who struggled to work 20 weeks a year so they could collect unemployment the rest of the time — "jazzonomics" as Clifford calls it. In a moment of foresight, one player, Jonesy, reacts to the appearance of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show: "That kid will do to horn players what talkies did to Buster Keaton."

SideMan5 Side man "Clean" Gene, a trumpeter, lives for his horn. He played with Frank Sinatra and many of the big names of the 1940s and ’50s. When he plays, he’s totally aware of his environment, timed to an instant; offstage, he has to write down everything or he forgets it. He steers clear of the habits that sideline other musicians, the drugs that derail his trombonist pal Jonesy and the womanizing that absorbs his friend Al, another trumpeter. But when "Crazy Terry" throws herself at him, he allows himself to be drawn first into housekeeping with her, and then, when she becomes pregnant, a marriage for which he is ill-equipped.

At first, Gene and Terry seem a good match: "The rocks in her head fit the holes in his," as another trumpeter, Ziggy, puts it. Foul-mouthed but essentially naive, Terry starts out unaware of the realities of Gene’s syncopated life. The talented but unworldly side man remains unambitious, lost in his music, his wife and son rarely foremost in his mind. As the play goes on, she comes to deeply resent this, dropping into a raging depression and alcoholism that he scarcely notices. Young Clifford is forced to parent his parents.

SideMan4

Beautifully executed, the Metropolis production shines with a neon-lit set by Dustin Efrid and outstanding performances. Ryan Hallahan is a wry Clifford, recounting his haphazard upbringing without self-pity. Michelle Weissgerber plays his mother, ably seguing between the dizzy young Terry and the bitter old woman she becomes. Steve O’Connell’s Gene drifts amiably and bewilderedly through the show, rarely alive except in his music.

Their performances are matched by a talented supporting cast, with the vivacious Debbie DiVerde as Patsy, a round-heeled, jazz groupie waitress; Matt McNabbin a solid performance as the lisping Ziggy; David Vogel as Al, the Romeo of trumpeters; and Michael B. Woods, last seen in Metropolis’ Out of Order (our review ★★★★), in another stellar performance as Jonesy, the junkie trombone player who wavers from urbane sensitivity to crude humor. Jonesy, despite — or perhaps because of — his addiction, seems the one character really in tune with his world. When Terry wonders if Gene will ever "make it" at as a jazz musician, Jonesy, gesturing at the gritty jazz club around them, replies, "Honey, he’s made it. This is it."

Winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, Side Man ran more than 500 performances on Broadway. Despite its fraught dysfunctional-family scenes and paeans to a vanished world, this is an essentially good-hearted play, never maudlin or sentimental, but full of offhand humor. You need not be a jazz fan to relate to it.

SideMan2 SideMan1

Little actual music features in this bittersweet play about musicians, though one moving scene, in Act II, sums up the jazzmen’s lives. Gene, Ziggy and Al have — to their disgust — been reduced to playing with Lester Lanin’s orchestra, a society band whose audiences "couldn’t’ swing if you hung them." As they’re packing up after their performance, Al brings out a rare recording, the final trumpet solo of the great Clifford Brown, for whom Clifford was named, and the three stop everything to listen, rapt, to the soulful notes.

 
 
Rating: ★★★★

Side Man contains adult language and themes. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre is two blocks from the Arlington Heights Metra station and free parking is available in the municipal garage behind the theater. Google map of location here.