By George Basler
Any list of America’s greatest plays is bound to have Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire near the top. The 1947 play, which charts the mental deterioration of its main character, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and later became a prize-winning movie.
The play also achieved legendary status in the theatrical world in large part because it made Marlon Brando a star and ushered in a new breed of anti-heroes. Even people unfamiliar with the play have probably seen the photo of young Brando in his Streetcar role, complete with his tight-fitting T-shirt and brooding stare.
So, the Endicott Performing Arts Center is taking on a challenge in staging the play which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday (Nov. 10-13) in EPAC’s Robert Eckert Theater. The production, directed by EPAC Artistic Director Patrick Foti, is respectable but uneven. It has its strengths but also some problematic elements that undercut the power of Williams’ play.
Streetcar takes place in a dingy New Orleans apartment where Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle, has come to live with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley, after being forced to leave her hometown for reasons that the play gradually reveals.
Blanche and Stanley take an instant dislike to each other that accelerates with tragic results during the play’s three acts.
The success, or failure, of a Streetcar production depends to a large extent on who plays Blanche, the main role. EPAC is fortunate in this regard, because Jean Graham gives a strong performance as the multi-faceted character.
As written by Williams, Blanche is a mixture of hauteur and vulnerability. Her emotional fragility and loneliness earn the audience’s sympathy. But she also relishes taunting Stanley and is a master manipulator who works to deceive the play’s other characters.
Graham plays both those aspects well. Her gestures and facial expressions give the character a haunted quality as Blanche moves from reality to romantic illusions and back again. Graham is especially effective in a scene at the end of Act I in which Blanche recounts the suicide of her gay husband, a suicide she was responsible for and which triggered her emotional deterioration. It’s a shattering moment, as it should be.
Where Graham falls a bit short is near the end, when Blanche reaches the point of total collapse. Graham doesn’t quite catch the heartbreaking quality of the scene. She downplays the moment, and Foti directs it with a certain laxness.
The most questionable part of the production, though, is the casting of Pierre O’Farrell in the role of Stanley. It’s not that O’Farrell is a bad actor. He conveys a strong sense of danger with his performance, and that’s all to the good. But the hard fact is that he’s too old to play the character.
That’s not his fault. Nor is it his fault that the role is so identified with Brando’s brooding sexuality that any actor gets stuck with this template.
Still, O’Farrell’s age and lack of animal magnetism is jarring and dilutes the strong sensual and sexual overtones of the play. This is especially true in his scenes with his wife, Stella, played by Kylee Thetga. To make any sense of their relationship, Stella must be in the grip of a raw sense of lust for her abusive husband that keeps her coming back for more.
But any sense of lust is lacking in the EPAC production. The fact that O’Farrell looks much older than Thetga doesn’t help matters.
O’Farrell has his strengths, though. He plays Stanley’s simmering anger with great skill, and his cool vindictiveness is striking. The performance makes your skin crawl at times as the character glories in his brutality towards Blanche.
Williams himself has said, “The play is about the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.” O’Farrell plays that brutal force to the hilt.
As Stella, Thetga effectively presents her character’s inner turmoil as she is torn between her love for her sister and her obsession with Stanley. Her portrayal of guilt at the end of the play is especially fine.
Matt Gaska is totally believable as Stanley’s sweet, but hapless, friend, Mitch, who becomes Blanche’s beau. His cool anger when he finds out that Blanche has deceived him about her past is shattering. The character is a decent man trapped by his life’s circumstances, and Gaska plays it well.
Deb Malllen does a good job in the smaller role as Stella’s sympathetic upstairs neighbor.
The EPAC production may have its misteps, but the power of Williams’ play comes through. It’s a commendable effort.
IF YOU GO: A Streetcar Named Desire finishes its run tonight and tomorrow at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tonight’s performance is at 8 p.m. and Sunday’s is at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($18 for ages 65+). Purchase tickets online at www.endicottarts.com at “Upcoming Events,” call 607-785-8903 or visit the EPAC box office.