KCAT takes control of A Streetcar Named Desire

Cinnamon Schultz is no stranger to area stages, and she’s been memorable onscreen, too. (Recall her supporting appearance in the 2010 film Winter’s Bone.) But she redefines herself in a remarkable performance as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, now at Kansas City Actors Theatre. She’s a capital-L Leading Lady, a luminary.

“Beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart — I have all these things,” Blanche says of herself, and Schultz’s moving, dominating portrayal brings just these qualities to bear. Her Blanche is at the center of this play — its mind, spirit and heart.

“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at — Elysian Fields!” Blanche says at the start of the play. And so we meet Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroine, one whose story is so well-known, we might think there’s nothing new to glean from it.

But there is.

Under the focused and discerning direction of the talented Sidonie Garrett, and with a stellar cast, KCAT’s rendition of Streetcar reacquaints us with the characters in New Orleans’ French Quarter and brings us intimately into their lives. It’s a standout production, reminding us of Williams’ layered insights and painstaking attention to the nuances and details of human psychology, behavior and folly. The brilliant script — it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 and is considered the writer’s masterpiece — fills our ears with poetic dialogue that stays true to character and propels the story. Here, it engages both our minds and our guts.

As Stella, the sister in whose two-room flat Blanche has arrived for a stay, Bree Elrod brings an inner strength to a woman who appears at first timid and unassuming but emerges as one who knows her own mind. Whether in scenes with the neurotic, self-deluded Blanche, on whom she dotes, or with her husband, Stanley (Tommy Gorrebeeck), with whom she’s enamored, Elrod’s is a subdued and solid portrayal. Her Stella is a young woman manuevering in an apartment’s small space between an older sister in need and a volatile spouse clearly less welcoming of their houseguest.

Stanley Kowalski — it’s practically a household name, even for those less familiar with the play. Each March in New Orleans, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival holds a Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, in which contestants “vie to rival Stanley Kowalski’s shout for Stella” in the script’s iconic scene, when Stanley calls out for his wife. The moment comes with a lot of baggage, and the potential to come off as parody. But Gorrebeeck’s wail is fresh, authentic. It grabs us at the throat. It reverberates. (The resulting passion between Stella and Stanley emanates so viscerally from the stage, we’re thankful for the darkened space where they retreat.)

The excellent Gorrebeeck breathes renewed life into the Polish working-class man who wavers with too much ease between affection and abuse. He imbues his character, on the warpath from the start against his sister-in-law, with the heightened senses of a stalker on alert, and this actor’s slender physique belies the physical threat he can summon.

Stella, Stanley and Blanche, then, make up the corners of a sorrowful triangle. Blanche has sought an asylum, of sorts — “I want to breathe quietly again,” she tells us — and we slowly learn just why she’s there.

Enter Mitch (Matt Rapport), Stanley’s army and poker buddy and co-worker, who courts the fragile Blanche. Rapport’s is an affecting and agile performance, lending a touching credibility to an ordinary man finding hope and companionship, for a time, in her company.

Supporting cast members also do good work: Sam Wright as the neighbor and friend Steve; Karla Fennick as Steve’s wife, Eunice; Roan Ricker as the teenage newspaper collector, who draws Blanche’s inappropriate attention; Joe Carr as poker friend Pancho; Greg Butell as the doctor; and Meredith Wolfe in three small roles.

Shane Rowse’s lighting, from the soft candle glow of a romantic evening to the brightness brought to a harsher scene, adds dimension to the story’s telling. Mary Traylor’s costumes reflect the 1940s time period and Blanche’s sense of self and style. And David Kiehl’s sound design, particularly the timely insertion of the Varsouviana polka in moments of memory, is hauntingly effective.

KCAT has given this classic play, with its many themes and complicated characters, a staging of clarity and note. And though it’s fairly lengthy, we’re too engrossed to be concerned. This Streetcar has impact. It rewards us well beyond its fare.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Through September 25 at Kansas City Actors Theatre
at the H&R Block City Stage Theater (Union Station, 30 West Pershing Road)
816-235-6222, kcactors.org

Categories: A&E