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A Streetcar Named Desire

If the successful adaptation of a play to a different time or place or culture is an indication of the universality of the work, then the Denver Center Theatre Company's current all-black cast production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire certainly proves that the lyrical Southerner deserves his consensus assignment among the immortal playwrights.

Showing both his experience and temerity, director Israel Hicks mixes the rich humor of African-American culture with the languid fatalism of New Orleans' seedy underbelly and turns a cultural icon inside out. The results are astonishing. Instead of the predictable march to Blanche DuBois' demise, possibilities are suddenly multiplied. No longer certain of the outcome, we relish the vitality of the proceedings, hanging on every encounter for the unexpected turn.

Amidst Michael Brown's evocative set of filigreed ironwork, streetlamps, period furniture, a beaded portiere, and vintage icebox, life in the Kowalski's neighborhood is a vibrant mix of musicians, hustlers, street vendors, eccentrics, friends, and acquaintances.

Photo of (L to R) January LaVoy as Stella and Candy Brown as Eunice
(L to R) January LaVoy as Stella
and Candy Brown as Eunice
Photo: Terry Shapiro
January LaVoy and Terrence Riggins are dynamic as Stella and Stanley. LaVoy is the heart of the drama, her sunny disposition a ballast to Stanley's hurricane of testosterone and opportunism and Blanche's fanciful displacement. As forgiving and regenerative as Mother Nature herself, LaVoy makes Stella the tie that binds past to future, the compassion that makes sense from irrationality.

Photo of (L to R) January LaVoy as Stella, Kim Staunton as Blanche DuBois and Terrence Riggins as Stanley
(L to R) January LaVoy as Stella,
Kim Staunton as Blanche DuBois
and Terrence Riggins as Stanley
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Riggins is a multifaceted powerhouse as Stanley, transitioning with ease between passionate lover, beer-swilling card shark, good old boy, controlling husband, and abusive lout. Yet underneath, Riggens shows us the wheels turning behind Stanley's emotive exterior, his skepticism toward Blanche's story, his protectiveness toward his friend Mitch, his methodical destruction of Blanche's credibility and self-respect.

Photo of Kim Staunton as Blanche DuBois
Kim Staunton as Blanche DuBois
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Yet it is Kim Staunton's portrayal of Blanche which clinches Hick's argument that Williams' play speaks to the Black experience, for it is her lines which contain the playwright's most lyrical, Dionysian moments—his anima, really. Here, Staunton's clearly delineates how Blanche's English teacher's artistic sensibility slips easily into hypersensitivity and obsession, and finally, with a little help, into delusions of grandeur: a worldly façade with desperation and alcohol dependency pounding at the door, she hangs by a thread.

Photo of Harvy Blanks as Mitch
Harvy Blanks as Mitch
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Her last hope is Mitch, who represents a moral straightforwardness with which she hopes to wash away her transgressions. Harvey Blanks maneuvers through this minefield with aplomb, down home enough to play poker with the boys, idealistic enough to believe he can find a woman in the French Quarter good enough to bring home to his devout mother.

There is only one confusing passage, which has nothing to do with color and everything to do with blocking, where Stanley rapes Blanche: Hicks wants the violence to take place offstage, as in Greek tragedy, but the set demands it happen on stage. He simply could have suggested what was to come at the fadeout of the scene, but instead we wonder why Stanley carries her toward the bathroom, intoning a key line to only a small section of the audience, and diluting the assumptions of the final scene that follows.

Despite the inroads that many minorities have made in America, we are a country still deeply divided by race. Yet, as this production illustrates, these divisions are largely illusory, based on prejudicial conventions that could just as easily be reversed. The Denver Center Theatre Company's mind-opening production of A Streetcar named Desire runs through February 14th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows

 

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