When Blanche, desperate and destitute, comes to live with her sister in A Streetcar Named Desire, she finds Stella sexily and happily married to Stanley, a working-class yob — a Pole, not a Polack, as he angrily informs Blanche. The couple's home in the steamy New Orleans French Quarter is a long way from the sisters' privileged Southern-belle background, and Blanche, with her fluttery, self-indulgent mannerisms, is like a red flag to Stanley's bull. The man may be uneducated, but he's hardly stupid, and he understands that the issues of class and propriety Blanche represents are a direct threat to his marriage. Hence his redoubled fury when he discovers how thin, frayed and dishonest her claim to gentility really is. "That man will be my executioner," Blanche says after meeting Stanley, and of course she's right. Though there are acute comic elements in the clash of cultures represented in Streetcar, the outcome is both tragic and grotesque.
The tiny stage at Germinal Stage Denver brings into strong focus something I'd only half-noticed in the play before: These people are living in suffocating proximity to each other, denied even a whisper of privacy for sex or conversation, forced to change clothes under only the flimsiest of cover. Stanley's friend Mitch must court Blanche within earshot of Stanley's noisy poker games; Stanley fumes outside the bathroom when he needs to take a leak because his sister-in-law is enjoying the long soaks she claims she needs to settle her nerves.
An excellent production of a play as great as Streetcar — and this is such a production — always shifts your interpretation a little. Nuances alter; you understand the characters differently. Tom Borrillo isn't an obvious choice for Stanley, who's usually presented as a magnetically sensuous hunk — the coiled, glossy energy of the young Marlon Brando defined the role for decades. What Borrillo does is make Stanley real and down-to-earth, as warm and loving to his wife as he is vicious toward Blanche, clumsily bearish rather than macho, and very funny as he attempts to explain the Napoleonic Code (which has to do with property rights, since he believes Blanche is screwing Stella out of hers). At every moment, however, you remain aware of this man's capacity for violence.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through December 11, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
I've seen Stella played as a contented cow and Blanches who are all frantic jitter, but the characterizations here go deeper. Anyone with a difficult sibling has felt the exasperation that sometimes crosses Lisa Rosenhagen's face as her Stella attempts to deal with all of Michelle Moore's stratagems and evasions as Blanche. (Rosenhagen was a pleasantly sensual Stella at the Nomad Playhouse many years ago; her performance is richer now.) This Stella knows that Blanche is dangerous as well as irritating, but she also loves her sister dearly, and understands as nobody else could the fears and frailties that underlie Blanche's pretensions.
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Contradictions are what make fictive characters come alive, and his ability to create complex people on stage — self-deluding, full of passion, often destructive as hell — and set them interacting with each other is one of Tennessee Williams's greatest achievements. Moore makes all of Blanche's contradictions clear. She's as fragile as Laura's little animals in The Glass Menagerie, starved for love and longing to be cherished. And she's also manipulative, predatory and cunning. Even in the midst of her intense narcissism, she loves Stella as dearly as Stella does her: When she urges her sister to leave Stanley, it's protectiveness as much as class snobbery that motivates her.
There are a few small missteps: the hanging foliage that too often obscures the action, the unsubtle and intrusive way the black-clad woman selling "Flores para los muertos" is presented. And Leroy Leonard is a little stiff and one-note as Mitch. A bigger problem is the interpretation of the scene in which Blanche encounters the newspaper delivery boy and thinks about seducing him. This is a moment that should hit home — both gentle and dangerous, with his innocence serving as a contrast to her sad, ripe disillusionment. But here the teenager is just a nasty smirker, who gets that he could screw Blanche but doesn't really want to.
Overall, however, this is a powerful evening of theater, with the actors speaking the stylized dialogue as if they'd just invented it, and the ending — so well known, so frequently parodied — a genuine heartbreaker.