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A Streetcar Named Desire Is Still Sharp Enough To Cut Bone

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of A Streetcar Named Desire proves that, nearly seventy years after its premiere, the play has lost none of its relevance or ability to shock.
John Vesbit as Stanley Kowalksi and Sherryl Despres as Blanche Dubois, rehearsal.

John Vesbit as Stanley Kowalksi and Sherryl Despres as Blanche Dubois, rehearsal. /Ashley Wierenga for Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

"I want things. That's my job. I even want the things I already have. I want everything you have. I want the things that don't exist. That's why I'm the Devil." -Kelly Link, "Lull"

1947 saw the premiere of many shows, including High Button Shoes, Bloomer Girl, and Street Scene, names that mean nothing to you unless your theatrical grandparents passed down the royalties. Time has done its sifting, leaving only the big rocks behind: BrigadoonA Moon For The Misbegotten and, towering above them, A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee Williams' masterpiece has lasted because it tells true things about people we know or people we hope we haven't become.

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production (January 10-26) opens on sticky, langorous New Orleans life, as Blanche Dubois arrives, ostensibly to stay with her sister over the summer. The production brings the city to life without beating us over the head; yes, there are references to beignets, and yes, "When The Saints Go Marching In" is sung, but it's the vendors and Erica Soto's soulful singing that bring us the city in all its glory.

The name Blanche Dubois instantly conjures up her character: a fading southern belle, still beautiful in the right light, a spendthrift, a dreamer. Sherryl Despres' performance allows the audience to see straight to her soul: Blanche's airs of sophistication and whimsy are a cover for deep anxiety, and the mask is slipping.

The place feels appropriately cramped, especially when Stanley Kowalski (John Vesbit) is in it. Vesbit plays the part with gusto, striding around like a would-be king and bursting occasionally into violence. Blanche describes him as an animal, and as he prowls around you can see where she's coming from. Her sister Stella, well-played by Rachel Varley, is herself a richly-layered character: quiet but resolute, abused but not a victim.

For a while, it seems like New Orleans may work out for Blanche; Mitch, a poker buddy of Stanley's, takes a mostly courtly interest in her. But the past she had hoped to escape drags her down again. Despres, remarkable throughout, is most remarkable as Blanche begins to fray. The slightly eccentric, widowed schoolteacher reveals herself to be a woman in extremis, and Desprey never sets one foot wrong; watching her, I felt at moments that I was seeing exactly what Tennessee Williams himself had seen.

There were audible gasps in the audience as Kowalski made his most awful decision. Susan Brown, a fellow attendee, told me that during the ending she had tears in her eyes. A Streetcar Named Desire is no museum piece, but a heartsick reminder that our wishes have no hold on reality, and that when illusions shatter, their pieces can cut you. 

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