Bozeman Daily CHRONICLE
A classic 'Streetcar Named Desire' opens in historic theater
By LUANN ROD, Chronicle Staff Writer
Posted: Friday, May 21, 2010 12:15 am
"They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at -- Elysian Fields! -- Blanche in Scene 1 of "Streetcar Named Desire"
As Blanche DuBois steps up to the house in the French Quarter, she is taken aback by the building's shabby exterior. How far has her sister fallen? Living in a grungy, two-room apartment with her brutish, working-class husband, Stella is so in love the tension sends shards of sexuality in all directions. She welcomes Blanche into her home while at the same time sensing the impending turmoil between the two most important people in her life.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by American giant Tennessee Williams, "A Streetcar Named Desire," opened last weekend in The Ellen Theatre presented by Actors Theatre Montana and MontanaTheatreWorks.
Actor and co-founder of Actor's Theatre Montana Cara Wilder stepped into the refurbished downtown theater a year and a half ago and knew she wanted to produce a play there.
"I wanted to do something classic in this theater," said Wilder. "You come in the theater and think, 'something Williams, O'Neill, Arthur Miller, something that fits the era.' "
And, the story's relevancy continues to speak to a contemporary audience, said Dee Van Zyl, director and the other co-founder of Actor's Theatre Montana.
"The changes that people are facing now is very much Blanche's and Stella's story. They have lost their home place, their plantation. So they have an incredible adjustment emotionally, economically, everything."
Although the audience at Friday's opening night performance didn't fill the house, its ovation at the end of the play did fill the air.
"It felt really great," said Wilder. "It felt so good to be performing in front of an audience. I really felt like everybody was ready to go."
Taking the role of Blanche, Wilder covers a vast terrain of human emotion. The character of the psychologically fragile, closet drinking, wilted Southern flower has attracted theater's most talented dramatic actresses, including the original, Jessica Tandy and recently, Cate Blanchette. It's not a part to be taken lightly -- none of the major roles in this great American play is.
Meeting the primary cast and director last week before "Streetcar" opened, the nervous excitement was contagious.
While Wilder takes on the volatile Blanche DuBois, Mark Kuntz, manager and veteran actor with Shakespeare in the Parks, plays the brutish Stanley Kowalski. An accomplished Susan Dickerson is Stella, at the center of Stanley's and Blanche's tug-of-war. Eric Concord captures the role as a steady Mitch, smitten by Blanche's genteel persona.
"It's been an incredible four months preparing for this," said Van Zyl, the other co-founder of Actors Theatre Montana. Van Zyl has been a theater professional for 37 years, yet, taking on the director's helm of this production was daunting.
"The whole thing gives me pause, let me tell you. I'm not what you would call an overly confident anything. ... It is a classic. Everyone knows the 'Stella'," referring to the Stanley's animalistic wail for his wife.
First produced in 1947, Williams, in part, based his story on his own experience with his sister who suffered from mental illness. The 1951 film won Oscars for Vivian Leigh, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, and nominations for Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan.
"It was an amazing film. I've watched it many times myself since I started directing this play," said Van Zyl. But defying her lack of confidence boldly stated, "there's a lot of people in our play that are way better than that movie. Part of it is style. But this cast has realized a real heartfelt story and it's not easy for them to make their way through it each night. It's a huge show."
Kuntz said he watched the film twice but adds it wasn't to do an imitation of Brando. "I just do it to learn the play, to learn the story. He made some interesting choices."
Prowling the stage, Kuntz makes his own interesting choices. As Stanley he is possessive and threatening. He dominates the stage with his long stride, stalking Blanche, his rage barely repressed.
"You kind of have to forget, as much as you can, about the iconic part of it and just try to bring whatever you have to it, to try to make it what you can," said Dickerson.
"You start from the page and the script and make your own. The words are so beautiful," said Wilder.
"The nice thing," she said, "is it is written with some levity. There are laughs, there are fun moments. Blanche is kind of a funny character and Stanley has a lot of humor and Stella is very bubbly and lovely. So, especially in the first act we found a lot of humor."
Wilder said the response from last weekend's audience was "tremendous." "Especially from people who thought 'do I really want to sit through a Tennessee Williams play? They said 'we're really amazed and were really entertained.' "
That shouldn't surprise the director.
"It's a very rich play, rich, dense, and tragic as well," Van Zyl said. And, "I just happen to have the finest cast that I've probably ever worked with in my life. It's an absolutely amazing group of actors."