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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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A Streetcar Named Desire: Beauty vs. beast
It's a fight to the finish in Tennessee Williams' play
on
The animal attacks.
The animal attacks.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

A Streetcar Named Desire was given a 30-minute standing ovation at its 1947 Broadway premiere, and in the 60 years since that night, Tennessee Williams' masterpiece has been in constant production. "Stelllaaah!!" has passed into the cultural lexicon, and some of our best actors have left their fingerprints all over the major roles: Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Vivien Leigh. It's nearly impossible to get these ghosts off the stage, but University Theatre gives it a go.

There's a fine performance by Stephanie Monday, who plays Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern beauty with flimsy pretensions to gentility. She arrives unannounced at the shabby New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella (Clare Arena Haden), and Stella's coarse, working-class husband, Stanley Kowalski (David Wilson-Brown). Stanley is immediately irritated by Blanche's social condescension and suspicious when he learns the sisters' ancestral mansion has been "lost." When he overhears Blanche call him "an animal" he reacts like a predator that's sighted its prey.

Stella loves her sister, but when she throws herself into Stanley's arms - all surrender, all animal heat - Haden is believably besotted. "I'm not in anything I want to get out of," she tells Blanche. Their raw passion is a vivid contrast to the hesitant relationship that develops between Blanche and Mitch (a touching performance by Steve Wojtas) - an aborted attempt at a "refined" courtship.

It becomes apparent that Blanche has nowhere else to go, that her pretensions veil a promiscuous past, and that her romantic fantasies are a fragile defense against reality. Monday is especially moving when she directs long delusional monologues to an unseen, offstage listener - someone out there who might sympathize, maybe one of those strangers on whom she depends for kindness. She's a pale, fluttering Blanche - even her white, ruffled clothes are moth-like - as she wanders deeper into her world of illusions.

The struggle between Stanley and Blanche is at the heart of Streetcar, but the underlying sexual tension between them is missing in this production - like a dish with great ingredients but no salt. Wilson-Brown's Stanley is brutal and merciless toward Blanche, but there's too little suggestion of the menacing sexuality that defines his final triumph over her.

Director Norma Saldivar's nice atmospheric touches bring hot summer nights to mind: the slow circling shadow of a ceiling fan, the sweat-stained shirts of Stanley and his poker-playing friends, street singers and jazz. Unease in the Big Easy.

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