It is sometimes missed, when one examines Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, that while the destruction of one woman is taking place, her sister goes forth and multiplies. As Williams often points out in his works, the Southern Belle, represented here by Blanche DuBois, is a dinosaur that cannot survive in the 20th century. The mammals, however, those beasts of the new millennium, are fruitful. And to a fading flower like Blanche, it can seem that everyone, even her own sister, plots against her. It is a paranoia that has already begun to manifest before Blanche ever arrives at her sister’s current home, because Blanche’s dementia began long before she ever set foot here.
But even the stunning fall of this faded and broken flower, as Williams presented it half a century ago, falls far short of the savagery that confronts Blanche when the show is presented by Durham, NC-based Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. In their current production at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, Blanche is doomed, not because of the death of her husband, the loss of her home, the change in her sister, nor even the desire of her brother-in-law. Blanche enters, not Elysian Fields, nor New Orleans, nor even Louisiana. The place she comes to visit is Hell. And the king of this particular hell is not Stanley Kowalski — by no means. This king is the king of Voodoo himself: Baron Samedi.
The viewer who comes early enough gets a chance to examine the home in this run-down quarter of New Orleans. There are red sheets on the bed and a V-8 engine perched in the center of the living room; there are Voodoo and erotic posters on the walls, along with Mardi Gras masks, one of Stanley’s bowling pins, and an enormous array of liquor stored on the only available space for a bar: atop the refrigerator. The entire set is dark and sinister. There are touches not often seen in staging this drama: a mosquito net for the bed; a Red Star and Bear flag, used as a throw on the couch; and a skull set prominently beside the bed, a bullet hole in the forehead readily obvious. There is absolutely no reason to wonder when Blanche speaks of a setting best described by Edgar Allan Poe.
Another tremendous addition to the set by Little Green Pig is a live band, “The Napoleonic Code,” upstage right, that features four members including songbird Dana Marks, who channels Zydeco and the Blues like a medium.
Blanche (Nicole Farmer) is escorted onstage by Eunice (Joan J.) about midway through Scene One, another change to the usual format. Prior to her arrival, we have watched as Baron Samedi (Lamont Reed) prowls the set as if already laying the trap he has set for the unsuspecting victim. Then Stanley (Jeff Alguire) and Stella (Gigi DeLizza) appear, the naked man and woman that Leonard Cohen has referred to as “just a shining artifact of the past,” before they plunge into the red sheets for another attempt to quench their insatiable desire for each other. Quickly done, they speedily dress and leave for Stan’s Bowling Night, and are thus away when the Voodoo Queen, Eunice, leads Blanche into the squalor that is Stella’s current living quarters.
If we were to attempt to list all the wonderful additives that director Jay O’Berski has added to the set and premise of this production, we’d have no time at all to praise the superlative cast that he has assembled for this rite. Nicole Farmer, as Blanche, gives what might be the performance of her career as this fading flower of antebellum society. She strikes every single note that we have come to expect from the best performances in the role. And she does so, to use Blanche’s own vernacular, “skillfully, and with elan.” Jeff Alguire is by no means Marlon Brando’s Kowalski, however. Thin as a rail and heavily spectacled with dark-rimmed glasses, Stanley’s entrance gives us pause, as for a moment the man seems miscast. Not to worry. Alguire gives Stanley the animal that Williams requires, so that the blue-collar, army-trained, auto-mechanic, grease-under-the-fingernails quality of the man is central to the characterization. He is every bit the equal of this high-society queen who has trespassed upon his sanctity.
Stella is not at all the young woman we would have thought grew up on Belle Reve Plantation. For her man and husband, she has become the slut. She dresses like a whore, is openly sexual with her husband, and is not any vestige of the belle she must have been when she left Laurel, Mississippi. Blanche is horrified. But to the astute observer, it is apt; she has become in her own way as much of a fallen woman as has her older sister. DeLizza gives a new and sensual reading to Stella, and she returns quickly to the difficult woman she must have been when she lived at home with her antebellum family.
The play is quick and savage and full of tremendous surprises. Samedi actively participates in many scenes; and it is he and his voodoo dust that turns first Stanley, and then Mitch (Mark Jeffrey Miller), on Blanche. The Voodoo curse, brought to a fever pitch by live music, is palpably upon the household. Other significant updates: there is no poker game for the “boys” to play; they hold long evenings practicing martial arts, instead. We have lost the “street people,” but there is still an audience to Blanche’s slide into mania, peering from every entry or window. And when he finally comes for her, Blanche’s “savior” arrives in a bamboo hat and Hawaiian shirt; Jordan Smith as the Doctor seems to sanctify the scene before he leaves with his charge. There is no baby in the final scene; disbelieving entirely Blanche’s accusation, Stella is as much under Stanley’s spell as she has always been. Even Mitch, who usually stumbles into pain and horror at Blanche’s slide, stands and watches bovinely as Blanche makes her escorted exit. He is merely one of the assembled multitude that Samedi brought here to bring Blanche to her doom; having performed his role, he is as unaffected by the result as are all the others left standing in the gloom as Blanche flees. And she, at last, escapes from her tormenters, retreating into the mind that has become her own private hell.
If you do not see this production, you will have missed a performance that brings an aspect to this play that, now, seems lacking in prior productions. While Williams may have given his work a sexual and evil undercurrent, a subtext perhaps, Little Green Pig brings it out into the open in all its glory and horror. We are struck even more fiercely with the notion that Blanche’s ruin is pre-ordained; and that her arrival here is a death-knell. Brilliant performances and an air of the supernatural that is unsettling vibrate from every pore of this production. It is a bone-tingling thrill from start to finish.
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents A Streetcar Named Desire Wednesday-Saturday, June 27-30 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 1, at 2 p.m.; and Thursday-Saturday, July 5-7, 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $12 Wednesday and Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday, except pay-what-you-will June 27th performance ($5 minimum) and $8 Student Rush tickets sold one hour before every performance (no reservations accepted). (888) 239-9253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://www.littlegreenpig.com/season/streetcar/ [inactive 11/08]. Common Ground Theatre: http://www.cgtheatre.com/events. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1290. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044081/. The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Streetcar_Named_Desire_%28play%29 (Wikipedia). Tennessee Williams: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=8822 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0931783/ (Internet Movie Database).