Elysian Fields On Fire
By Tom Wachunas
In the creative set designed by Christopher Lesho, two potent symbols from Tennessee Williams’ most acclaimed play, A Streetcar Named Desire, remain visible at one end of the North Canton Playhouse mainstage throughout the show. One is a street sign marked Elysian Fields, where Stanley and Stella Kowalski live in a shoddy, claustrophobic apartment. It’s no small irony that the avenue is named for the mythological resting place of virtuous and heroic souls. Additionally, the adjacent signs bear the names of streetcars – Desire and Cemetery. And it is certainly at the intersection of desire and death where Blanche DuBois, a road-weary, wilted Southern belle, visits her younger sister Stella in the blistering summer heat of New Orleans.
But this is no congenial family reunion. It is, rather, a desperate reconnoitering. Here is a smoldering battlefield, where terribly flawed personalities and volatile histories circle each other warily at first, then ultimately collide in an unforgettable firestorm of psychosexual and emotional tension. Generally speaking, this production brings an American classic to electrifying life via the impeccably skilled ensemble cast directed by Mary McManaway.
In her role of Stella, Tessa Gaffney offers a subtly impassioned, deftly constructed study of affections torn asunder. She stomachs her husband’s various abuses with an almost cavalier romanticism. Inexorably caught between her fierce (sometimes mystifying) spousal loyalty and equally fierce defense of her demented sister, she’s finally forced to make an agonizing decision not too unlike Sophie’s Choice.
If there’s any relief from the viciously contentious life transpiring in the Kowalski apartment, it’s provided by the married couple living upstairs, Eunice and Steve. In those roles, Kathy Lewis Snyder and Jeff White are delightfully gritty and at times downright hilarious, particularly in their beer-lubricated, implied lovemaking bouts that follow a vociferous fight.
It is a memorable and convincing tonal palette – a facile chiaroscuro of character - that Al LaFleur IV brings to his portrait of Stanley Kowalski. On the one hand he’s every bit the “commoner” and “animal” that Blanche finds so abhorrent - insufferably proud, relentlessly sardonic and rude, with a hair-trigger temper. On the other, he’s genuinely protective and affectionate in an awkward sort of way, even to the point of sniveling repentance.
For sheer sustained, emotive intensity, though, the fire that burns the hottest in this torrid tale is in the character of Blanche. ‘Riveting’ doesn’t begin to do justice to how effectively Marci Sailing Lesho nails the role. In truth, there are arguably too many moments when her Southern drawl is so mannered, so rhythmically affected, that her words become sing-songy mush. Maybe it’s an over-the-top attempt to bring out the powerful lyricism of Tennessee Williams’ language. In any event, it’s a forgivable enough flaw when encountering the gripping substance Lesho brings to her character’s monstrous narcissism, pathetic delusions and elaborate deceptions. And speaking of gripping substance, when Blanche screams, it’s a bone-rattling aural phenomenon.
Her deceptions are systematically exposed, destroying her sanity, not to mention her last chance at real love, embodied by Ted Paynter in his role of Stanley’s best friend, Mitch. Paynter delivers an absorbing portrayal of disarming transparency – an engaging mix of tenderness, anguish and anger.
Let’s briefly consider expectations. Who, after all, could ever wholly forget the unprecedented power and startling rawness of the 1951 film? That film, the one wherein Marlon Brando’s sweat-drenched cries of “Stella! Stella!” became, forever it would seem, one of our most indelible markers of great acting. But that was indeed film, this is the stage. Each has intrinsic methodologies and challenges in communicating authentic human drama.
So yes, there are echoes of the film in this production. But the theatrical challenges are well-met here, and I think those filmic echoes are sufficiently faded enough for us to hear truly momentous, unique voices. Voices immersed in compelling immediacy. Bravo.
A Streetcar Named Desire, SEPTEMBER 20, 21, 22 at the North Canton Playhouse, 525 7th Street, North Canton. Tickets: $13 Adults $12 Seniors and Students. Buy Tickets Online at www.northcantonplayhouse.com or call the box office at 330.494.1613 Showtimes: Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:30pm
PHOTOS courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Al LaFleur IV as Stanley Kowalski, Marci Sailing Lesho as Blanche DuBois