by Hugh Hunter
There have been many revivals of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) by Tennessee Williams, but at its best the show now running at Old Academy makes you feel you are watching it for the first time.
The story centers on Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern Belle, who suddenly decides to visit her sister Stella in New Orleans. It is the common plot device of the mysterious intruder. Who is Blanche? What does she want?
But playwright Tennessee Williams’ handling of the plot is anything but common, and “Streetcar” is now a standard of American theater. Director J.P. Parrella’s meticulous two-room set evokes Stella’s hardscrabble life, quite a come-down from her plantation upbringing.
This production is smoother than the show Old Academy attempted last year, which had to be canceled because of an accident. Scene changes flow more easily (still a work in progress), and sound effects (Mike Loro, Randy Shupp) chime in effectively. Bernard Glincosky portrays Stanley Kowalski as calculating and suspicious towards troubled Blanche. This Kowalski, however, takes no special delight in cruelty, which makes his final burst of violence seem even more horrid in its gratuitousness.
But the heart of the story is Blanche DuBois, played by Nancy Bennett, who shines. It is a difficult role to play because the character is vulnerable and tough at the same time. The only way Blanche can keep her life together is by making up stories about herself. Most actresses who perform this role become melodramatic at some point (usually on the side of Southern Belle fastidious refinement). But Nancy Bennett does not hit a false note all night, and you feel as if you are watching Blanche DuBois herself. Bennett is that good.
Bit by bit the real Blanche emerges, and in the process she lays bare everyone’s reality. Mitch (Patrick Martin) tries to be one of the guys, but he is really a mama’s boy, and Blanche’s siren call brings out both his loneliness and his sexual prurience. Blanche also destroys the uneasy peace sister Stella (played with fine naturalism by Kellie Cooper) had made with her marriage, and Blanche provokes Stanley into the full expression of his bestiality.
“Streetcar” is a long play, but it holds your interest because you are always learning new things about the characters. At the level of social drama it slams into your gut. We have all seen the spectacle of a vulnerable person being made worse by the neediness of others. And “Streetcar” is one of the few Williams’ plays that is actually sympathetic towards the South, perhaps because Blanche may be based on the life of his beloved sister, Rose. In a metaphorical way, this already troubled place is only made worse by outsiders like Kowalski, the self-proclaimed “…one hundred percent American and proud of it.”
Old Academy Players, where Grace Kelly made her acting debut many years ago, is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane in East Falls. “A Streetcar Named Desire” will run through June 23. Tickets available at 215-843-1109.