Review: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

After an absence of nearly 10 years, Gary Sinise has come home from Hollywood to appear onstage with the Steppenwolf Theater Company he co-founded, turning in a fascinating performance by going against type as Stanley Kowalski of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

After an absence of nearly 10 years, Gary Sinise has come home from Hollywood to appear onstage with the Steppenwolf Theater Company he co-founded, turning in a fascinating performance by going against type as Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Not as stunningly handsome or as apelike in physique as most Stanleys, Sinise still projects the character’s seething anger and animalistic tendencies. He also injects more humor into the line readings than one usually gets, and that makes this Stanley all the more intriguing and sexy.

Predictably, perhaps, the run was nearly sold out before opening night, but this is a flawed “Streetcar,” as good as Sinise is, because the production fails to deliver a Blanche DuBois with the same impact. The fault appears not to be with actress Laila Robins, who possesses the requisite stage presence and technique, but rather with director Terry Kinney’s interpretation of the character. For most of the evening, this Blanche displays none of the fragility and mental imbalance one might expect. She aggressively jousts with Stanley and rushes through her big soliloquy about the horror of losing Belle Reve as if it were only a very minor annoyance to be put quickly out of mind.

With no real hint in early scenes of the impending horror, it is hard to suddenly accept or feel the tragic pathos of the shattered, mad figure in tattered gown and rhinestone tiara that Blanche becomes when Mitch (John C. Reilly) rejects her and Stanley rapes her.

In this “Streetcar” Kinney overindulges a fondness for symbolic sound effects, most notably a screeching streetcar that repeatedly rumbles by on cue to dramatically underscore key points in the script. The production also might have benefited from less of the excessively shrill jazz music that fills the moments between scenes.

Though it lacks a great portrayal of Blanche, Kinney’s “Streetcar” does come with several good performances in supporting roles. Particularly impressive is Reilly’s Mitch, a soft-spoken, retiring figure who seems at once baffled and fascinated by Blanche. By underplaying Mitch’s folksy nature, Reilly beautifully underscores the lonely aspect of his character.

Kathryn Erbe’s unassuming portrayal of the dutiful Stella grows in impact, and in the play’s final scene, she makes us feel her pain as her crazed sister is taken away.

Overall, the production design doesn’t evoke enough of the French Quarter’s romantic seediness. Robert Brill’s towering set is dominated by a sweeping staircase that pulls too much focus from the Kowalski residence. Kevin Rigdon’s lighting bathes the residence in shades of yellow most of the time, and he has provided little in the way of atmosphere beyond the apartment walls. Costume designer Laura Cunningham has attired Blanche in seductive suits and gowns, in appropriately sharp contrast to the drab outfits worn by everyone else.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 500 seats; $36.50 top.

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater Company presentation of the play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Terry Kinney.

Creative

Sets, Robert Brill; costumes, Laura Cunningham; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; sound, Rob Milburn; original music, Kimo Williams; production stage manager, Robert H. Satterlee. Steppenwolf artistic director, Martha Lavey. Opened, reviewed May 4, 1997. Running time: 3 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Cast: Gary Sinise (Stanley Kowalski), Laila Robins (Blanche DuBois), Kathryn Erbe (Stella Kowalski), John C. Reilly (Mitch), Amy Morton (Eunice Hubbell), Rick Snyder (Steve Hubbell); Audrey Morgan, John C. Seda, Krishna Le Fan, Sandra Marquez, Mike Sassone, Kristen Fitzgerald, Vivien Lyon.
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