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"I like you to be exactly the way that you are because in all my experience, I have never known anyone like you," Mitch confesses to Blanche in Tennessee Williams' lyrical and devastating "A Streetcar Named Desire." For a few moments, it appears that Blanche has found the compassionate understanding and reprieve from loneliness she has frantically been seeking, and it marks one of the many luminous moments in the Grand Theatre's powerful, but very slow-moving, revival of this American classic.
This attraction and collision of opposites are what propel "Streetcar" and ultimately cause Blanche's undoing. When she arrives on the seedy apartment doorstep of her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley, Blanche has reached the last stop on her downward spiral to oblivion. She is clinging desperately to the gentility of a Southern way of life, a world completely alien to the crass and crafty Stanley. She is both fascinated and repelled by his volatile sensuality, but she senses what lies ahead: "That man is my executioner," she tells Mitch. "That man will destroy me."
Stanley sees Blanche as a threat to his relationship with Stella. His earthy energy has managed to eclipse her connection to the Old South. "I pulled you down off them columns [of Belle Reve's plantation house] and how you loved it," he reminds Stella. "Wasn't we happy together, wasn't it all OK till she showed here?"
Stella is stronger and more resilient than Blanche, and she has used her all-consuming passion for Stanley to shape a new life. But her loyalty and love for her sister and Stanley's cruel behavior to Blanche begin to undermine their relationship. As the play ends, she is as trapped as her sister, although she cannot allow herself to recognize it.
A major key to any production's success is casting, and director Mark Fossen has chosen the perfect combination of actors. The performances are simply stunning. April Fossen's portrait of Blanche captures all the nuances of her mercurial personality, vacillating from charming to manipulative. She's neurotic, guilt-ridden, poetic while also resourceful, vulnerable and flirtatious. In her self-delusion, she's poised precariously between death and desire.
At one point, Stanley proclaims, "Luck is believing you're lucky," and Robert Scott Smith's portrayal is supremely self-confident. His Stanley is not overtly macho, but he exudes a coarse and smoldering sensuality that erupts into violence when he's challenged. He operates on animal instinct that sizes people up and exploits their weaknesses.
Anne Louise Brings' Stella is steadfast and devoted. Both sweet and sensual, she possesses a calm conviction that withstands crisis. And Lonzo Liggins gives Mitch a shy, slightly self-conscious earnestness that's refreshingly down to earth, fleshing out a character that often emerges too bland in productions.
Fossen's direction is focused and intense, but the pacing continually lags. The main reason is his overuse of a clever visual motif he's created to reveal Blanche's growing distraction and fixation on her past betrayal of her young husband. Dancing figures appear silhouetted in rosy light behind a screen on the set's balcony; the image is striking at first but reappears too often and goes on too long, slowing the main action. Williams' street vendor with her flowers for the dead also returns over and over, blunting her impact and making the symbolism too obvious.
But these are minor quibbles with an otherwise outstanding production. Halee Rasmussen's confined apartment set with its dingy walls and mismatched furniture intensifies Blanche's sense of entrapment. Spencer Brown's lighting is soft, nostalgic and dark around the edges, and Shannon McCullock has given Blanche fashionable costumes that echo a previous era and clash with the workaday wear that surrounds her. The music of Adam Day's sound design ranges from Dixieland jazz to a delicate waltz for Blanche and the polka that continually plays in her head.
Williams' world where the strong annihilate the sensitive seems uncomfortably timely in our dog-eat-dog contemporary times. This production triumphantly testifies to the ongoing power and poignancy of his vision.
The Grand's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" etches indelible portraits of vibrant characters who speak louder than ever to the turmoil of our troubled times.
When • Reviewed March 18; plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. through April 1, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Grand Theatre on the South High campus of Salt Lake Community College, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Tickets • $16 to $22 with discounts for students, seniors and groups; 801-957-3322 or grandtheatrecompany.com; contains adult language and situations
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including two intermissions)