Director David Cromer has had a rapid ascent into the upper echelons of the A-list. In the last two years or so, he’s made unlikely Off Broadway hits of the unconventional musical “The Adding Machine” and the familiar “Our Town,” which has become the longest-running production of a much-produced title. His Rialto revival of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” didn’t catch on commercially, but it received enough genuine respect from critics that he’s expected to direct another musical — “Yank! A WWII Love Story” — as well as the play “Picnic” on Broadway next year. But for now, he’s back in his hometown, Chicago, with an intensely intimate production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” likely to generate out-of-town curiosity.
Cromer and set designer Collette Pollard have crafted a set that goes well beyond the usual margins of a thrust in Writers’ Theater’s 108-seat space (where Cromer previously staged “Picnic”). The small Kowalski apartment pushes up against the knees of those in the front row, a purposeful violation of personal space.
This is not so much a steamy, lyrical production of “Streetcar” as it is claustrophobic and psychologically intricate. As portrayed by Natasha Lowe, Blanche is not at all ethereal but prissy and ultra-tightly wound. And when Cromer adds his own touch — creating a tableaux depicting Blanche’s vision of her first husband with another man — the director makes clear that this Blanche doesn’t get lost in her memories. They haunt her in a very genuine, tortured manner.
Similarly, Stanley (Matt Hawkins) isn’t treated as an icon of male sexual appeal. He’s genuinely boorish, barking orders. He’s made sympathetic at times only because of Blanche’s snobbish condescension, and because of Stella’s affection for him (there’s no questioning that last point — their reunion scene after he hits her involves make-up sex with lifted legs and a bare bum.)
The titular streetcar isn’t just mentioned, or heard gently off in the distance. It rumbles loudly overhead, enough to create a vibration (in a masterful sound design from “Adding Machine” composer Josh Schmidt).
This is a visceral show that champions Williams as a dramatist of dark and deep psychological insight and unpleasant truths. While not an untraditional view, Cromer once again invests fresh feeling into the familiar, and emotional truthfulness into every moment.