Blanche DuBois has exhausted her many lives. Gone is her life as scion of the family estate, as schoolteacher, as ill-fated wife. All that remains for Blanche is to ride her desires to the Elysian Fields — the afterlife — for a fateful fight with the devil for her soul.
“The hard knocks my vanity has been given!” says Blanche, tragic heroine of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams’ saddest and most beautiful play. Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company opens public performances of the play this weekend in Minneapolis.
The company’s intimate aesthetic, spare technical accoutrement and Peter Vitale’s bluesy saxophone make this a “Streetcar” to be experienced. Directed and edited by Randy Reyes and Lear deBessonet, this staging shines a bare bulb on four people hoping for redemption.
Blanche invites so much interpretation from an actor. Austene Van cuts a wide swath with a muscular performance built on Blanche’s false confidence, bravado, her air of refinement, verbal dexterity and a keen ability to see the world through her own lens.
“I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth,” she says. And as she enters the squalid apartment of her sister, Stella (Elizabeth Grullon), Blanche’s idea of truth is that Stella is wasting her life with her volatile husband Stanley (Kris Nelson).
But Stella and Stanley are two halves of a whole — a surprisingly sturdy couple bound by their determination to dig out a life from their surroundings. They scream, holler, laugh, cry, fight, suffer, procreate — surviving on primitive terms that Blanche cannot fathom in her luxurious fantasy.
Grullon understands well the compromises within Stella. She consumes life with big happy gulps but also with sad denials to Blanche. “You’re making much too much fuss about this,” Stella says after Stanley slaps her.
Kris Nelson, an actor of bristling intensity, cuts a physical and psychological portrait of Stanley that differs from the thuggish Brando stereotype. Wearing a snap-brim straw hat, Nelson gives Stanley a cagey, street-smart air. Still, Stanley’s rabid temper betrays a staggering scar of humiliation. When he shouts for “Stella!” it is a howl of pain and surrender to the primitive impulses that he does not understand or control.
Kurt Kwan plays Mitch, Blanche’s last hope. There is something gorgeous, balletic and hopeful when Mitch lifts Blanche — just to show how strong he is — and their pose punctures the stifling air of their lives.
Blanche, of course, loses her fight in a denouement fraught with heartbreak and relief. This moment makes us wish that we had seen more of Blanche’s fractured core in Van’s performance. We don’t fully get at the panic lodged in her marrow. That sense of Blanche is missing in an otherwise fine production.