So far, the Southern New England arts season has been a place for serious theater. Trinity Rep opened with Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar.” And now, Pawtucket's Gamm Theatre has presented Tennessee Williams' deep and driving “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Here's the question: Is there a better American play than “Streetcar”? One more ferocious? More intimate? More filled with pathos and need? One harder, and more heart-rending?
Probably not. It was Tennessee Williams' most honest, most self-reflecting work, a power play about small people that tells us much about the world. Some of which, maybe we didn't want to know, or face.
At the Gamm, director Tony Estrella and a very fine, music -driven cast have given us a loud, rollicking, kick-butt “Streetcar,” one that, at times, seems over-loud, overdone. But one that also reaches to the heart and soul of its characters.
This is a version that makes you contemplate, and almost surely agree with, the plaintive cry of Blanche DuBois, the heroine who tragically fails to cope: “There's so much confusion in the world, she says.”
This “Streetcar magically opens with music. A terrific four person band sits above the stage and romps on about goin' home, home to New Orleans. They soon have the saints marchin' in.
Poor Blanche arrives, loaded down with fancy garments which are about all she's got left. Played with undeniable depth by Marianna Bassham, who was a splendid Hedda Gabler last year at the Gamm, Blanche is skittish, fragile, hyper, and more than a bit bitchy.
After all, she's lost the family mansion and land in Mississippi and must now depend on her sister Stella and Stella's grossly positive husband, Stanley, for house and home.
From there, “Streetcar” becomes a battle of nerves and knives, ending with “the kindness of strangers,” surely one of the most heart-breaking finales ever staged.
As Blanche, Bassham, thin, almost skinny, is filled with anxiety,. Her dependence on illusion, is palpable from the get-go. At times, you wonder if she needs all of the shouting and weeping. But, in the end, this Blanche is memorable, exhausted by her life.
As Stanley, Anthony Goes comes on really high, pressing all of Stanley's drive too high. But eventually he catches the essence of this needy, naughty “richly feathered male” as Williams called him.
Excellent supporting work helps this “Streetcar” a good deal. Karen Carpenter's Stella is terrific. She's soft and sweet, but able to handle the kind of hard hits poor Blanche never could. A woman who can take it all and keep going.
Steve Kidd, makes Mitch, the needy and sweet suitor of Blanche, into a real man of his time, sure and unsure. And Wendy Overly is the ultimate Louisiana mama, mighty tough and smart enough to know when to fold 'em.
Finally, Jessica Hill's setting works brilliantly. It's a couple of rooms scrounged together tighter than a too-small belt.
But the real finality of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is its posit that life goes on, whether we like it or not. At the Gamm, they've caught the idea without a doubt. That's what makes this “Streetcar” well worth seeing. It's tough, and most of all, real. Don't miss it.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” continues at the Gamm Theatre through October 18th. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.