Foothills experiments with 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

David Brooks Andrews

Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is one of those plays that's likely to remain seared in your mind, even if it has been a long time since you last saw it.

Director Jason Southerland and his artistic designers are counting on your familiarity with the play as they occasionally give impressionistic twists to Foothills Theatre's strong production of it.

Southerland approaches the material as if all of the events are Blanche DuBois' dream of what lies ahead as she travels by train from Laurel, Mississippi, where the family's plantation has been lost, to New Orleans, where her sister Stella lives with her husband Stanley Kowalski in a rundown quarter of town.

And so Foothills' production opens with Blanche sitting on a large steamer trunk, her head bobbing to the sound of railroad cars while a strobe light gives the feeling of passing lights and we hear inner voices whispering to her. The impressionistic moments vary considerably in their effectiveness throughout the course of the play, but they do add layers and insight to a story that has become perhaps too familiar over the years.

Blanche is a woman who has arrived with a raft of secrets that are slowly revealed during the evening. The first is that she guzzles liquor much more than she admits, and for all of her claims to innocence and purity there's an uncontrolled sexuality raging within her. The cry of a neighborhood cat suddenly has Dee Nelson as Blanche reaching for the chest of Brian Nemiroff as Stanley in a beautifully staged and revealing moment. For Blanche, sexuality is a way of manipulating people and maintaining her superiority, and, from the moment they meet, she is on a direct collision course with Stanley and his much more raw, animalistic sexuality.

One of the real strengths of this production is the humanity of the lead characters. The passionate affection between Jessica Webb's Stella and Nemiroff's Stanley feels very real as does her willingness to overlook his shortcomings, knowing what it takes to keep the marriage together. Nemiroff plays Stanley with considerable pleasure in his own blue-collar Polish-American accent, a glee in discovering Blanche's weaknesses, and an ability to become explosive with little warning. It makes for a very effective performance.

Even though Stella and Stanley's marriage is no model, especially by today's standards, Webb and Nemiroff make them feel very human and sympathetic. It's easy to side with them as Blanche tries to break up their home, consciously and unconsciously. In one of the more effective impressionistic scenes, Blanche takes a cigarette from Stanley's mouth and kisses him while he's playing poker with his buddies. We know it's taking place in her heart, not in reality, because Stanley's friends don't see it happening.

Blanche is a difficult character to play because, with all of her self-centeredness and lack of self-control, she's not very sympathetic. Nelson enables us to empathize with her as much as possible by playing her realistically while exposing her vulnerabilities, instead of going for the excessive flourishes that actresses tend to give the role.

Kevin Ashworth makes for a believable Mitch, Stanley's friend who takes an interest in Blanche. Liliane Klein as Eunice and William C. McGregor as Steve, the couple who live above Stella and Stanley, come across too much as stereotypes. It's interesting having the neighbors look through holes in the windows at times, but it's too much to have them enter Stella's and Stanley's apartment impressionistically.

The greatest liberties are taken with a scene in which Blanche tries to seduce a young newspaper delivery boy. If you don't remember the scene, you might feel a little lost as he's represented in this production by Stanley and two of his buddies with flashlights to their faces and even by Stella, though this does give a sense of Blanche's confusion and demons.

Set designer Janie E. Howland recently won an Independent Reviewers of New England Award for her very realistic set for "Streetcar" at New Repertory Theatre last year. But her impressionistic set for this "Streetcar" is even more creative and impressive.

Stanley and Stella's apartment is formed with two walls of loose slats; the walls are rolled closer together at one point. Howland makes up for Foothills' small stage by creating holes in the windows through which neighbors peer. And an essential bathroom is formed with a bathtub and fragmented mirror. A number of naked light bulbs remind us of how much Blanche detests a naked bulb and truth itself.

Matt Guminski's lighting is dramatic and often stark, but the light that shines directly into the audience's faces is annoying.

There's considerable humanity to this production, and the impressionistic touches are intriguing if not always effective.

Stella is the character we most feel for as Blanche falls apart on her and goads Stanley into actions that threaten to destroy everything.

MetroWest Daily News

What: "A Streetcar Named Desire"

When: Through May 4

Where: Foothills Theatre, 100 front St., Worcester

Cost: $32-$35

Info: 508-754-4018,