I recently witnessed an impressive magic trick in Fairhope. Theatre 98 transformed a wintry, modern exurb into the balmy, Truman-era New Orleans during its current version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and reminded everyone of the play’s Pulitzer-grabbing genius.
Some bow to William Faulkner as the king of Southern Gothic literary arts — maybe if you feel a sentence’s conclusion is a capital crime, sure — but for Artifice, Tennessee Williams seizes the crown. His work is more concise and efficient, yet still kicks away dirt from the pain and shame hastily buried in the human soul.
“Streetcar” might be the best of Williams’ lot. The social, cultural and psychological layers are dense, the play’s characters deceptively complex without a clearly defined protagonist in their number. All are tragically flawed and self-destructive.
For the uninitiated, hard times force Blanche DuBois to leave her ancestral Mississippi mansion and move in with sister Stella and her working-class husband, Stanley Kowalski, in a run-down New Orleans apartment. Stanley prowls the tiny flat exuding repulsion and attraction equally, always volatile and resentful of Blanche’s condescension and eccentricities.
It checks all the boxes for the best of Southern Gothic, not the least of which is its decadent Crescent City setting. Class consciousness and pretension, sweat and alcohol, bigotry and flirtatious manipulation, suppressed homosexuality and suicide — it’s all there. The only thing missing is seersucker.
Theatre 98 plays to its advantages. Its small size — 98 seats — and theater-in-the-round setting trap the audience inside an apartment seething with emotional turmoil. Director Timothy Guy tosses action back and forth. Conflicts and outbursts occur in the laps of one row of seats, then across to another, then another.
The sets are apropos, worn and faded with the Faubourg Marigny’s je ne sais quoi. Sightlines keep nothing hidden. Practical and decorative lighting are perfectly attuned. Together with the interstitial music (which I had a ball identifying — Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker) the mood is dead-on.
Aside from its playwright, “Streetcar” is known for one gargantuan presence: Marlon Brando. In its initial 1947 Broadway run, his phenomenal performance catapulted him from an unknown into the theatrical heavens. When he recreated it in film, it only heightened his legend.
Those are intimidating shoes to fill, even seven decades later. Joe Fuselli shows a spine like a redwood to even try. It helps that he bears the physique for the part, matching Brando’s blue-collar brawler build with one more like a bodybuilder.
If Fuselli’s performance in the preview I saw had any drawback, it was early on when he didn’t seem quite brutish enough. You got the sense this was a nice guy trying to channel the worst parts of himself, looking for a volcano of danger and erotic malice. But as things grew more intense, Fuselli really came alive.
Sarah David’s Stella was a good match, especially since she and Fuselli are newlyweds. It made their attraction more realistic. When they tumbled into bed in feverish lust, I felt intrusive. Being only 10 feet away was part of it, but the rest was something more authentic.
David’s Stella showed good chemistry with her sister as well, summoning irritation only siblings understand.
J.P. Sylvester was good as Stanley’s pal Harold “Mitch” Mitchell, his shy, nearly incompetent squiring of Blanche conveying suitable impotence. Sylvester’s voice and size are ideal.
The undoubted star of the show is Reagan McDowell as Blanche. Her instability, her judgments, everything about her emotional beats are exactly where they need to be. Though this is only her third production with Theatre 98, you would never know it. When she pulls from her emotive well, what flows forth is genuinely unnerving in the most exhilarating and terrifying ways.
If there’s a criticism about the show, it’s with costumes. The women’s wardrobe was wonderful but the men were dressed in obviously modern pants (and shoes in some cases). I know community theaters have an understandable limitation of resources but it fiddled with my suspension of disbelief. Also, hairspray used to be film companies’ go-to for visible perspiration stains. When a character says he’s sweating through his shirt, let’s see it better.
The dysfunction is tangible and widespread here. If you’re looking for heroes, search elsewhere. If you want to see the parts of us we don’t like to admit to, then look no further.
The show runs through Feb. 17 and advance tickets are sold out. Theatre 98 suggests getting on standby. Artifice suggests an extended run.
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