March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Purple Rose brings Tennessee Williams’ violent vision to life

Purple Rose Theatre Co. has uncorked a bitter vintage with its revival of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

This staging of one of America’s most viscerally violent plays leaves audience members feeling more than a little empathy for how Blanche DuBois’ fragile defenses are shredded and delusions of grandeur shattered.

Michelle Mountain, as Blanche, sparkles. Audiences suffer the experience of watching her dissolve and dissipate until there is nothing left but a few flecks of her former self. Mountain’s affected Southern patois exudes Williams’ lyrical language with a rapid-fire mumble that is all the more amazing for being fully articulate.

Matthew David’s brilliant portrayal of Stanley Kowalski is one part velociraptor, one part Incredible Hulk. He swaggers through the play, biceps and bull-testicles bulging. One minute he is dragging his pregnant wife across the stage ready to beat her to death, the next he is pouring out crocodile tears and screaming fears of abandonment.

Charlyn Swarthout plays Stella Kowalski, who is caught between her seeking sister and seething husband. Swarthout gives us a naive Stella, newly married and still charmed by her husband’s raging passions.

On the periphery of these three is the shadowy Mitch, Stanley’s war buddy and poker-playing and bowling-team crony. Qarie Marshall, as Mitch, displays an awkward and tender attraction to Blanche, but it cannot survive the heat of Stanley’s rage. In the end, Mitch succumbs to Stanley’s exposure of Blanche’s fraudulent past and joins in the humiliation, the subjugation that leads to her final breakdown.

Like many of Williams’ works, “Streetcar” is a memory play. Ghosts from Williams’ personal life rise out of New Orleans crypts and reassemble in altered shapes on stage. What nuance there is in this play of polar opposites is added by the subtle touches of director Guy Sanville and set designer Daniel C. Walker. Each of several minor characters is distinct and intentional, while Walker’s backdrop is a three-dimensional, impressionistic painting of shabby New Orleans slums.

What has changed since this play debuted on Broadway in 1947? Domestic violence, rape and the subjugation of women to men all still exist. The bisexuality issues hinted at in the play were at the top of the list of reasons the Catholic League of Decency condemned and censored this play when it debuted. Portraying these realities on stage was considered unacceptable.

Today, exposure of these brutalities has led to change. Williams helped throw open the doors to the secrets in the underbelly of the American Dream, and we are better for it.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

March 21 8 p.m. Wednesday – Friday 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturday 2 p.m.
Sunday Purple Rose Theatre Co., 137 Park St., Chelsea $25-$38 (734)
433-7673 www.purplerosetheatre.org

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