Dallas — A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ masterwork set in New Orleans in 1947, gets a sweaty, volatile staging with a racially diverse cast in Theatre of North Texas’ production at Arts Mission Oak Cliff.
Director Ryan Matthieu Smith’s take on the iconic faded southern belle who moves in with her poor pregnant sister and her virile, abusive husband is that they’re all swept up in a demonic undercurrent of sex and violence they cannot resist.
Voodoo spells and chants set the mood from the beginning, and intermingle throughout the play, driving an already aggressive Stanley (Dwight Taylor) to uglier brutality, and pushing the imaginative, mentally fragile Blanche (Tanasha Friar) over the edge. Manhandled Stella (Nae Callihan) becomes a helpless sex victim drawn like a magnet back to a husband who slams her around and grins when he does it.
Before the show even begins, we walk into the high-vaulted space of the Arts Mission where Wendy Rene’e Searcy has built a three-story cacophony of a set made of old slatted packing crates, wrought iron fencing and debris that might have been gathered from the streets after Mardi Gras. The bedroom and kitchen have the touching, tawdry detail of a working-class apartment in the ’40s.
Smith provides some audience seating at café tables at the edge of the playing space, adding to the sense that we’re privy to the action from a sidewalk café. Add Branson White’s lighting in contrasting purples and yellows, Benjamin Lutz’s grand projections of French Quarter architecture against the Mission’s white walls and stained-glass windows, and Cherish Robinson’s bluesy, bewitching sound design. Right away, we’re caught in the spell of the voodoo dancer (a mesmerizing Raymond Govender in a tight dress) whirling and spinning and singing and chanting in our midst.
Friar’s Blanche is not only shapely and flirtatious, but armed with a tight, brittle will to survive. When she brags in her deliberately exaggerated southern accent that she hasn’t “gained an ounce in 10 years,” we see a steely determination through her sisterly smiles. Although Blanche has nowhere else to go when she comes begging, Friar’s proper lady turns up her pretty nose at sturdy Stella’s shabby digs. Her Blanche tows the line between the tragic heroine looking to wipe out her desperate, sketchy past by marrying respectable mama’s boy Mitch (a soft-fleshed, easily seduced Caleb J. Pieterse) and succumbing to her nympho sex drive in a funny, coy scene in which she tries to seduce a terrified newsboy (wide-eyed Kent Van Dover).
Taylor’s Stanley is a confident bully, a handsome African-American man with thin, wiry muscles built on the job. He controls the poker game at his kitchen table with a threatening glance, and Stella comes running like a well-trained pet when he shouts for her. From the moment he sets eyes on Blanche, Taylor’s body tenses into battle mode. Not only does this snobby sister show up to make fun of Stanley and interfere with his domineering relationship with Stella, Blanche has lost the title to Belle Reeves, their family homestead he thinks of as his own property. Friar’s Blanche is sexually vulnerable enough to notice Stanley is a hunk, but smart enough to resist his attempt to discredit her stories and destroy her chance with Mitch. Their scenes together are sexually tense, comically edgy, and ultimately brutal.
Callihan’s Stella is easy and joking, as she giggles and tells her sister about how she’s always liked bad boys. She’s told herself the story about how gloriously happy she is with Stanley so many times she believes it. A hint of fear crosses her face when her angry husband slams his fist on a table or kicks a door, but then she resets her smile and goes on tidying up. When a tall figure in black lace drops a black rose in front of the kitchen, we understand the power of a hex is controlling Stella, and perhaps others. After all, there is a voodoo doll on the table right in front of you, next to your wine glass.
Marilyn Beal Twyman and Jason Schulman provide welcome comic relief as the Creole couple living over Stan and Stella, welcoming Blanche in their Cajun patois, and laughing and fighting by turns.
No character feels rushed through their scenes, and yet Smith moves this complex drama of human longing, loss and sexual heat through three acts in two hours, plus two brief intermissions. Occasionally, the music overcomes a line or two in the opening scenes, accentuated by the acoustics of the vaulted ceiling, but the forward movement is compelling and we can’t wait to see what happens, even though we know. That’s the power of a classic.
Even if you’ve seen the 1951 movie starring Marlon Brando or one of the many revivals over the years since the play won every award on Broadway when it opened in 1947, curiosity should drive you to this Streetcar.