Sam Bass Community Theatre concludes its run of A Streetcar Named Desire the last weekend of September in Round Rock. For those who have never witnessed the 1948 Pulitzer-awarded magnum opus of Tennessee Williams, there are a few good reasons to attend. But, there are at least as many for passing this particular production over.
The ground-breaking 1951 film starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh altered, omitted, or downplayed some aspects of the original play in order to meet Hollywood censorship standards. For that reason at least, the play should be enjoyed as an onstage event. Whether this is the production to choose for that purpose remains questionable.
The play includes several adult moments and comes with an age recommendation of 17 and above. Some costume changes are made by characters onstage, with Blanche Dubois, Stanley and Stella Kowalski momentarily in only undergarments. An under-the-covers love scene occurs between Stanley and Stella, performed well and realistically by the two actors. Adult themes touched on by the script include domestic abuse, rape, an allusion to a past teacher/student tryst, implications of prostitution, and the revelation of a homosexual indiscretion by Blanche’s late husband, the cause for his suicide.
The set design by show director Olin Meadows is very good considering the miniscule space with which he had to work. Sam Bass Theatre is a tiny venue with a very small stage, where even audience members in the back row might think they should have a script, so close to the stage is the entire house. Despite this challenge, Meadows created the Kowalski’s efficiency apartment effectively with sheets hung to form a partition between the sleeping and living areas, the hallway outside the apartment door, and he uses the building’s entrances to simulate the neighbor apartment and the outside world where Stanley goes to work and his friends arrive for poker. The only awkward bit about the blocking is that the neighbor man must cross entirely in front of the stage in order to visit the apartment, but given the logistics of the building, there is really no other option.
The house seats themselves are not sufficiently comfortable, and much shifting and repositioning is required to prevent minor aches during this performance which runs the better part of three hours. This is unfortunate for the person sitting in front, as there is precious little legroom, and at least one accidental kick of the seat back in front is almost unavoidable. The middle act of Tennessee Williams’ original three-act script was divided between Acts I and II, leaving only one intermission. A second opportunity for leg-stretching would have been welcome.
The actors have learned their parts well and the show is well rehearsed. There are no missed cues or flubbed lines. This is community theatre, however, and professional-grade acting is not to be expected. Actors often deliver lines dispassionately without conveying their emotionality, as though reciting memorized bible verses. Several passages of dialogue seem rushed and poorly articulated. Andrew Barham as Stanley is the least offender here, but it remains difficult for those unfamiliar with the script to understand his rapid pronunciation of “Napoleonic Code.” Otherwise, he does a passable job of conveying Stanley’s disdain, loathing, and distrust for his sister-in-law, and his frustration at being a working stiff trying to assert his dominance as King of his Castle. Susan Baratt also participates in the sprint-recitation, but does bring a certain vibrancy to the Stella character at sundry moments, during interactions with her sister Blanche especially. Much is asked of Blanche Dubois in this script, however, and Jennifer Gonzalez delivers her sans the desperate passion required of the role. This is particularly unfortunate, since Blanche’s dialogue contains passion and poetry, but is often tossed out like a prepared speech.
The handling of the characters who smoke during the performance was very well-done. The actors use e-cigarettes that look real. They are white with brown filters, and have red lights that become bright as the actors use them. They emit vapor that simulates real smoke, which helps set the atmosphere, particularly during the poker game segments. This seems a better way of handling the challenge of on-stage smoking by characters than using a real but unlit cigarette.
Particularly troublesome is the time setting of this production. It seems unable to make up its mind whether to be a period piece or an update of a story originally set in the 1940s. The furniture and set invoke the WWII era, with drab furnishing and appliances and a very old radio which might even be tube-type. Even very poor people today would be using a modern radio. Mid Twentieth-Century idioms in the dialogue should have been updated if this were intended to be translated to today’s society. However, the characters use smartphones and 80s style wireless phones instead of old wired rotary dials. They use Bic lighters for their “cigarettes”. Stella sports purple streaks in her long straight hair, and both Stella and Blanche show tattoos on back and shoulders, none of which was common for women prior to the 1980s. Stella’s undergarments are modern, while Blanche’s include a slip and camisole. This straddling of both time periods is confusing and distracting.
Blanche’s disoriented reminiscences are enhanced by video projections, which are indeed disorienting since they lack a flush background on which to reflect. It is usually difficult to discern the content of the video images. They blanket most of the set and the actor. The effect is one of a mysterious lighting choice, rather than an expository visual aid.
If the objective is to educate one’s self in this hallmark of Twentieth Century dramatic literature, never having seen it performed, Sam Bass’ presentation of the script has the value of an audio book – it presents the dialogue flawlessly, but the heart and passion of the story is left for the listener to provide. Sam Bass' late reduction of ticket prices makes it affordable, even less than the audio book might be. For those well familiar with Streetcar, whose aim is another enjoyment of the pathos and desperation of it, this may not be the production to attend.