Plano — Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire is undoubtedly one of the most important plays of 20th Century. Its subsequent influence in America theater and especially with regard to acting cannot be overstated. The stage play, along with Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, have become so iconic that it is almost impossible to watch a sincere version without a strong sense of irony. See pop culture characters from Seinfeld to The Simpsons screaming “STELLA!” to highlight this fact.
All the more reason to have a fresh (young) take on this American classic by those talented tykes at Fun House Theatre and Film with a reimagining written and directed by one of the most funny-clever theater artists in town, Jeff Swearingen. Using a concept by uber-producer Bren Rapp (who, for disclosure purposes, is TheaterJones’ Director of Sales and Marketing), the Fun House Crew turn Williams’ Desire into a pint-sized parody that takes place in a kindergarten populated by the same characters, as youngsters, with the nifty additions of “grown-ups” who play their parents.
In A School Bus Named Desire, Mrs. Monroe (Laney Neumann, who nails the tone of a caring yet overworked teacher) oversees the students in Clare Floyd DeVries’ bright and believable classroom set complete with “stations,” educational posters and a wooden slide/treehouse.
In Swearingen’s version, Blanche (Zoe Smithey) is on meds for her nerves and the other kids think she “talks funny” because she hails from Mississippi. She is still that melodramatic Southern belle we remember from the play who is surprised that Stella (Piper Cunningham), her cousin instead of sister in this iteration, ended up in such a “hideous place” after leaving her behind.
We learn that Blanche lost the family treehouse by the lake (replacing the play’s plantation of Belle Reve) which alerts Stella’s friend boy, Stanley (Alex Duva) who raves about the “Napoleonic Code” when he isn’t macerating cupcakes or threatening to choke out the older kids. Mitch (Joseph Nativi) is the nice boy who's on Blanche's side.
The rest of the show more or less follows the plot of the original, even using some of the same lines for a nice sense of intertextuality. And it’s Swearingen’s knack for playing up that tension between text and subtext that really shines in his Desire as he adds in commentary about modern helicopter parents, overmedication of our youth, bullying, and the cost of individuality in a naturalistic world. There are even smartly conceived characters representing minor characters in the original play, such as Eunice (Lauren Burgess), the newspaper collector and the flores vendor. And if you’re concerned how they handle that brutal final scene between Stanley and Blanche, here there’s a delicious twist.
The stellar performances of the young actors at Fun House have been well documented. The fact that even the younger kids (some as young as seven) who have the primary roles in this show is quite remarkable. Cunningham’s performance as Stella is not an easy one as she has to provide a steadiness between Blanche and Stanley’s mercurial extremes, and Duva captures an impressive amount of the lout’s masculinity and swagger.
Smithey’s embodiment as the disturbed yet refined Blanche is a tour de force of Southern accents, dimples, put-upon mannerisms, and turn-on-a-dime emoting. Her sighing “There’s so much confusion in Kindergarten” brings down the house. Mark my words, she will be a star.
The “adults” also fare quite well. Blanche’s father, Forest DuBois (Jeremy LeBlanc) is a sardonic perfectionist whose interaction with his wife, Pearl DuBois (a stalwart Taylor Donnelson), is a skin crawling delight. And speaking of tense couples, Doak Campbell Rapp and Zoe Grafrath as the Kowalskis is an uncomfortable peek behind the curtain of why Stanly is the way he is. In another nice touch, Stella has two dads (Tex Patrello and Brian Wright). Their parent conference is both funny and affecting; Patrello even musters real tears for such a short scene.
A Streetcar Named Desire’s transition to the elementary set works on many levels and the changes not only make sense (high-fives instead of kisses, gum substitutes for cigarettes, and a new baby doll instead of a hidden pregnancy), but also add insight in unexpected ways. It’s a fantastic addition to Fun House’s collection of surprisingly clever youth parodies of classic American plays (previous editions have been of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).
Just as Blanche drawls, “thank you for showing me there is beauty in this world.”