One could argue whether A Streetcar Named Desire is Tennessee Williams’ finest play. After all, there are so many of them to choose among. But there is no denying that fragile Southern belle Blanche DuBois and her brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski are two of his greatest characters.
The evidence is very much on view now at Palm Beach Dramaworks, where the lyrical yet visceral match-up between moth and flame is showcased in a first-rate revival of the work that continues to captivate audiences 72 years after in first exploded on Broadway.
Four years after that debut came the film version, which made a star of Marlon Brando and tilted the public perception of the work towards Stanley. But as the J. Barry Lewis-directed Dramaworks production makes clear, Streetcar belongs to forlorn Blanche, particularly as memorably portrayed here by Kathy McCafferty, whose descent into madness is achingly real.
As the epic, three-act play begins, the no-longer-young Blanche has lost her teaching job and her Mississippi family estate Belle Reve. So she arrives in New Orleans intending to move in with her sister Stella and her vulgar, but attractive husband Stanley (Danny Gavigan). While distainful of their humble apartment – ramshackled, but roomy as rendered by designer Anne Mundell – Blanche soon has Stella waiting on her every need.
Genteel yet unstable, Blanche stakes out one of Stanley’s poker buddies, sweet, simple Mitch (Brad Makarowski) as her romantic prey. Her default mode is to be flirtatious, as seen in a second act encounter with a young newspaper boy and, soon after, an extended seduction attempt on Mitch. Still, from their first meeting, there is an inevitability to Blanche’s animalistic showdown with Stanley.
McCafferty, seen previously at PBD in Outside Mullingar and The Little Foxes, is a supremely histrionic Blanche, with fluttery hand gestures, calculating in her efforts to hide her past, dependent upon Stanley’s liquor cabinet, she is ultimately a wounded bird spiraling downward. Williams wrote a towering role in Blanche and McCafferty is more than equal to the performance challenge.
As Stanley, Gavigan is a bold presence throughout the evening, even as he is relegated offstage much of the time. The air is humid and sticky in the French Quarter, causing Stanley to change shirts frequently, showing off his well-toned torso. Women in the audience will not mind a bit. Granted that it doesn’t take much for Blanche to be attracted, but Gavigan makes a persuasive case for her to be drawn to, and repelled from, Stanley.
Lending crucial support is Annie Grier as Stella, Stanley’s increasingly pregnant wife. And Makarowski’s Mitch is aptly understated and courtly as Blanche’s gentleman caller.
The physical production is up to Dramaworks’ high standards, notably Brian O’Keefe’s working class costumes and Blanche’s faded finery. Abigail Nover’s sound design evokes the ethereal melodies inside Blanche’s mind as well as the frequent clatter of the streetcar just outside Stanley and Stella’s apartment.
Dramaworks has been showcasing new plays in recent seasons with varying results. But when it reaches back into the library of classic works like Streetcar, it demonstrates why it has become one of the area’s first-rate stage companies.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 3. $77. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.