‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ kicks off Palm Beach Dramaworks season

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By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
Oct. 13, 2019

Palm Beach Dramaworks has compellingly undertaken an American theatrical masterpiece, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” With its capable staff, technical crew and resources – but particularly in the indefatigable hands of Director J. Barry Lewis – this timeless play has been brought together with actors delivering every fiber of their being. 

When Stanley Kowalski makes his appearance, he throws a blood-stained package of meat to his wife Stella like a hunter’s “kill.” It immediately establishes one half of the dramatic equation in the play. The other half is the arrival of Stella’s sister Blanche, who appears from a different era – the antebellum south – in “shock and disbelief” as she tries to negotiate the symbolic streetcar “Desire” which runs along Cemetery Road to find Stella’s home in “Elysian Fields,” an ironic description of a place Blanche could never imagine as her sister’s home. 

So the stage is set for the eventual confrontation between these two highly charged but unequal forces. It is Stanley who says to Blanche at the play’s climax, “We’ve had this date from the beginning.” 

Emblazoned in our collective memory of the play is the film version with Marlon Brando as Stanley and Vivian Leigh as Blanche. But those memories quickly fade watching the Dramaworks version. Director Lewis’ textualist interpretation of Williams’ work establishes his own distinctive, moving production.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Kathy McCafferty and Brad Makarowski

Knowing Kathy McCafferty’s outstanding performances in past Dramaworks productions “Outside Mullingar” and “Little Foxes,” I had expected her to take on the pivotal role of Blanche with a sense of ownership. She does. 

McCafferty’s Blanche is the nucleus around which the other major roles orbit, Stanley, Stella and Mitch. Their interactions become exceptional by McCafferty’s catalytic performance. She walks a fine line between fantasy and reality, at times fighting to retain her dignity confronting Stanley. But as the play evolves, McCafferty is in a losing battle, slipping into dream-like reveries about her one husband of long ago, a teenage marriage and a boy who was denounced as a degenerate. She danced with him to the Varsouviana polka the night of his death and those reveries in her mind play fragments of the music, and the suicide shot that killed him.

McCafferty easily moves between myriad emotional levels, sensitive to sound, light, sadness and regret, but carrying some fantastical hopefulness. Director Lewis choreographs her stage movements like a trapped animal while emphasizing her melodramatic tendencies. This is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actress of unparalleled talent. 

Dramaworks newcomer Danny Gavigan brings the necessary physicality to play the role of Stanley. He is a terrifying presence on stage, swallowing up the space and dwarfing everyone around him. Stanley is given to sudden bursts of rage, constantly feeling he’s being conned by Blanche, and he’s intent on exposing and destroying her. Yet as much as he is the alpha male, Gavigan cries out “Stella!” while in a prostrate position. He’s totally dependent on Stella loving him, although he is ruthless in his behavior toward her. His acting is remarkable in portraying the sexually-dominant male who refuses to let anyone best him. But it is his nemesis Blanche who threatens him by stepping between him and his wife, lying about her past and weaving fantastical tales which literally brings out his savage side.

And it is on his terms that Stella, played by Annie Grier in her Dramaworks debut, loves him. She’s torn between supporting her sister, even in some of her fantasies, and placating Stanley. Grier’s heart-wrenching performance of her failed attempt is sadly reflected in the arms of her neighbor Eunice as Blanche is led away to an institution. Fundamentally, Grier’s Stella is captivated by Stanley’s brutal sexuality. 

A Streetcar Named Desire
Annie Grier and Kathy McCafferty

Brad Makarowski, in his Dramaworks debut, plays Mitch, a well-meaning but flawed character. Makarowski portrays Mitch as “one of the boys” but he is more than that. He is devoted to his dying mother, and although having served with Stanley in the army and being a poker buddy, he’s also is a sensitive soul. He deeply impresses Blanche, who needs someone like him.

Until Blanche’s past is cruelly and crudely revealed by Stanley, Blanche and Mitch are drawn to each other, her seeing him as her last chance and he seeing her – with his mother dying – as a possible wife. Makarowski negotiates a delicate dance with Blanche, wanting to be a “gentleman” but having desires. He is in the climactic scene with Blanche when she tells him about the death of “the boy” – her husband. 

The boom is lowered in Act 3. Mitch confronts her about her past after being a no-show for her birthday celebration. Stanley has told all the true gossip about Blanche to Stella – and Mitch in particular. At first, Blanche fantasizes he has come back to apologize for being late for their date. But no, Mitch is there to utter the words that break Blanche forever: “You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother.” Although he plays a more secondary role, Makarowski makes it memorable.

Rounding out the cast is Julie Rowe, Gregg Weiner, Thomas Rivera, Suzanne Ankrum, Renee Elizabeth Turner, Michael Collins and John Campagnuolo.

This is a long, serious drama with two brief intermissions, yet it flies by in a testament to Director Lewis’ direction. There is humor embedded in parts and Lewis is careful to allow a pregnant pause for the humor to sink in, emitting some laughter from the audience.  

A Streetcar Names Desire
Danny Gavigan and Annie Grier

Anne Mundell’s scenic design is a masterpiece and literally takes your breath away when entering the theatre. Most notable is the openness of the stage. There is no place for Blanche to hide – from people, sounds and light. 

Costume design by Brian O’Keefe focuses on pastel colors in contrast to the set. Blanche requires a number of dresses, with several costume changes right on stage. The design and colors speak southern belle, and especially Blanche’s white lace gloves.

Lighting by Kirk Bookman bathes the stage in dappled light, allowing the time and date to dictate colors and intensity. Festive lights dangle from the top of the stage. This is decidedly New Orleans.

Sound designer Abigail Nover, in her Dramaworks debut, introduces the sounds of the city, New Orleans music and the haunting refrains of the Varsouviana that are heard during Blanche’s reveries. Lewis makes the most of these sounds during the most dramatic moments, particularly a train rumbling by.

There are not enough superlatives to commend this production. Take a theatrical ride of a lifetime on “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production is live theatre at its best.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” runs through Nov. 3. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. To purchase tickets, call the box office at 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.

Pictured above: Danny Gavigan and Annie Grier. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

To read Robert Hagelstein’s full review, click here.

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