Bless me father for I have sinned, it has been three weeks since my last review. Since then I have watched films and television, had impure thoughts, and binged Stranger Things. But that’s all over for another year, the 2022 – 2023 theater season launched for The Stages of MN last Friday evening at The Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo MN. On the bill was Tennessee Williams Pulitzer Prize winning classic A Streetcar Named Desire. Headlining the play were Nora Targonski-O’Brien as Blanche and Nathan Keepers as Stanley in what are two of the most powerful and mesmerizing performances of the year. With a supporting cast that plays only slightly less eccentric characters, it’s a production that keeps you engaged from start to finish even though the material is so familiar. Which is the sign that you’ve gotten a classic right. Set in New Orleans during the summer the heat is the match that threatens to set off the bomb that is Stanley Kowalski and shatter Blanche DuBois fragile nerves.
A Streetcar Named Desire made its Broadway debut in 1947, and there’s no denying that gender politics have changed dramatically in the intervening 75 years. The play is about the dynamics between the characters and the roles they play within their relationships. There isn’t a character on the stage that doesn’t seem to have some sort of psychological quirk. Stanley is the king of his castle, which is a tiny two room apartment. He is volatile and uses his masculinity to control everyone and everything around him. When he feels he’s being slighted or laughed at he lashes out due to his fragile sense of self with his manliness. His wife Stella is drawn to his animalistic nature, and seems to feel that the odd slap to keep her in line is part of that charm. When her older sister Blanche arrives for a visit she falls back into the role of caregiver or almost servant to sibling who has always required that, as her fancies or exaggerations that keep her functioning are themselves as fragile as Stanley’s ego. Even Stanley’s friend Mitchell, who becomes Blanches suitor, has some deep seeded mommy issues. The way these dynamics play out over the course of the evening as well as the secrets from Blanche’s past that are revealed are masterfully constructed. It truly is one of the great American plays of the 20th Century and it’s clear that it still has power in the 21st.
Nathan Keepers Stanley Kowalski doesn’t rely on a mimic of Marlon Brando’s famous take on the character. Keepers knows he has a different stage presence and wisely chooses to interpret the character in his own way. We see less of the smoldering sex machine and more of the little man lashing out. But we also see a Stanley that seems more intelligent, we see there is more going on behind his eyes than just a dumb beast reacting to things. Being loud and volatile can be easy and easily overcooked. But playing it in a believable way is a masterful task and Keepers doesn’t have a false moment on stage, he is truly electrifying every second he’s on stage. Whereas playing Stanley can lead a less accomplished actor to an over the top performance, playing Blanche can easily lead to a boring and grating performance droning on and on in a southern accent about absolute rubbish. Thankfully, not so with Nora Targonski-O’Brien’s performance which is nuanced and perfectly balanced. She floats between superiority and false humility with ease, her revelations and confrontations when they come are heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more sympathetic Blanche. Targonski-O’Brien’s portrayal, like Keepers, grounds the character in a reality that allows for empathy and understanding. Rounding out the cast are Kendall Kent as Stella, who has to placate these two extreme characters. She does a nice job of showing us the characters struggle to be who Stanley and Blanche need her to be for them, which are incompatible persona’s. They both need her to be at their beckon call, at the same time. Finally Bradley Hildebrandt’s Mitchell is basically a supporting character to both Stanley and Blanche as well as his off stage mother, though he gets his moment to go a little dark when he confronts Blanche on her birthday.
On the technical side of things praise cannot be piled high enough on Scenic Designer Justin Hooper’s work. The set of the Kowalskis apartment is a true thrust formation leaving just enough room on either side of the sides or the front of the stage for the characters to walk without grazing the audience. It has a depth and dinginess to it that gives it an authentic feel even as it takes liberties for visibilities sake, like the screen door that leads to the porch that doesn’t actually latch to a far side door frame. The reality of the set is enhanced by the work of Lighting Designer Kathy Maxwell and Sound Designer Jeff Bailey. Some of their key contributions come in the form of audio queues for Blanches memories of the husbands death, the repeating of which is a powerful audio motif. The costumes by Samantha Haddow represent the time and place well, but it’s her work with Blanche’s wardrobe that is particularly memorable. As worn by Targonski-O’Brien, they help us to picture Blanche in better, happier days, which makes her current circumstances all the more tragic.
Don’t miss a chance to see this classic of the stage performed by and outstanding cast. A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 9th at Yellow Tree Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://yellowtreetheatre.com/streetcar.
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