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Artists Reps Streetcar takes a detour

Theater review: 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
by: ©2008 OWEN CAREY, A heartbroken Stella (Val Lundrum, left) listens as Blanche (Andrea Frankle) dreams of the sea in Artists Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Anyone familiar with Tennessee Williams' classic drama knows that the sanity of the fragile belle Blanche DuBois is a bit of an open question. In director Jon Kretzu's interpretation, which opened last weekend at Artists Repertory Theatre, the audience knows where Blanche might be headed before she even arrives.

The seedy New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella, where the play's action will take place, features institutional linoleum floors, bare walls and a hospital-style bed. More tellingly, a professional man sits in a chair at one edge of the stage, looking on in silence.

In Williams' shocking drama about the demise of chivalry and the Old South, Blanche is in denial, and it is pathological.

She's come from the family manor in Mississippi, telling a story about needing time off from her job as a high school teacher. What she can't escape is Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, a dark-spirited beast of a man who holds her sister in a kind of erotic trance and burns to uncover the truth about what brought Blanche to visit.

A reckoning will come for the violent Stanley and the mannered, if damaged, Blanche.

It's easy to imagine the impact this Pulitzer Prize-winning play had on audiences in 1948.

Decades after Stanley's brutish, fists-first view of the world and Blanche's alcohol-fueled slide away from reality made them stand-alone figures in the theater canon, they're still hard to watch.

Mic Matarrese, whom ART imported from Milwaukee, Wis., for the Kowalski role, doesn't bring the smoldering sexuality of a young Marlon Brando, who starred in the 1951 film.

But he stalks the stage with hair-trigger fury, bathing the whole enterprise in well-felt menace. (The effect was heightened when he inadvertently hurled a plastic plate into the audience on opening night, striking a patron who ended up with a knot on his head.)

The production also gets solid performances from Val Landrum as Stella and Stephan Henry as Stanley's buddy Mitch, whose courtship of Blanche holds out promise for a time.

But Blanche will end up just where director Kretzu suggested at the outset, at the wrong end of a slow, heartbreaking stroll into madness, and the portrayal of her by Andrea Frankle, who is in fact a longtime New Orleans resident, is stunningly good.

Despite what the audience learns about her fall from grace, and even after she is degraded by her animalistic brother-in-law, her mighty battle to hold on to the dignity that once was her birthright is the only hopeful thing we have in Williams' very bleak landscape.

- Eric Bartels

7:30 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. SUNDAY, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, through May 18, Artists Repertory Theatre, Second Stage, 1515 S.W. Morrison St., 503-241-1278, www.artistsrep.org, $20-$47