I, like many others in my cohort, have a distinct impression of Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” based on Elia Kazan’s 1951 cinematic rendition of the play starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. With groundbreaking performances from hunky yet terrifying Brando and whimsical, pitiful Leigh, I admit that I was unable to suppress my predispositions before watching the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Theater and Dance’s rendition. But much to my surprise, I didn’t have to.
Irwin Appel’s direction coupled with UCSB-blooded actors effectively upheld the genius in William’s deceivingly simplistic play, which ran from from May 9 to May 19 at UCSB’s Performing Arts Theatre. The storyline chronicles the lives of three main characters during a hot summer in New Orleans: Stella (Grace Morrison), her husband Stanley Kowalski (Joe Samaniego), and Stella’s visiting younger sister Blanche DuBois (Nicole Caitlin Abramson). Stella and Stanley reside in a congested street-level apartment, which practically summons tension when southern belle Blanche comes to stay with them after losing the DuBois’ ancestral plantation. This strained relationship triangle manifests itself through intimate and powerful character interactions.
The play adheres to Williams’ design through its setting, which is an intimate black box setting with very minimal set and props. However, Appel adds a hint of spice when he breaks all walls of the theatre and has his actors sit directly in the audience at times, truly immersing viewers in the action. In some scenes, I felt voyeuristic; in others, I forgot there were actors and that I was even watching a play. Appel deliberately invites audiences into the intricate dealings between the characters, which makes the tragic plotline even more heart wrenching.
Due to my aforementioned predispositions, I was prepared to be highly critical of the mere physical appearance of the characters. Upon first gaze I gathered that, despite Blanche being brunette, all major characters including Eunice and Mitch fit their physical roles impeccably. This immediately led me to think of the pitfalls of type casting, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the actors’s abilities lived up to their appearances. But, boy was I wrong. Eunice (Erin Margaret Pettigrew) immediately launched into an exemplary performance, arousing laughter and smiles all throughout the room in the early scenes of the play. Samaniego managed to instill fear by prowling across stage and throwing his ever so suggestive meat package at a blushing Morrison. Abramson wowed the audience with her extravagant and burdensome vernacular layered with her comedically ironic behavior and clever blocking.
In arguably the most renowned scene (Stanley screaming “Stella!” anyone?), Samaniego’s performance elicits an overwhelming sense of empathy despite his harshly brutish mannerisms; one can’t escape pitying him. Morrison is so convincing in her unhealthy love for Stanley, you can’t help but think you’ve been in her position before. Caldwell and Abramson portray Mitch and Blanche’s innocent courtship as dolefully ill-fated, and leave you fruitlessly begging Williams for a happy ending.
What is also notable is Appel’s close consideration for the acoustics throughout the play. With a very talented music ensemble, the play is scored just perfectly enough to tug at your heartstrings. McVay’s rendition of Julie London’s 1955 “Cry Me a River” is a beautiful touch. Moreover, off-stage interactions cleverly and artistically take place in the Performing Arts Building’s foyer, creating illustrious echoes that rattle the black box.
My hat goes off to the cast and crew of “A Streetcar Named Desire.“ Appel and his actors rose to the challenge and truly enlightened the many lucky attendees who managed to catch a show.
Photo courtesy of theaterdance.ucsb.edu