Review: Paramount Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire Brings a Gritty Corner of New Orleans to Life

New Orleans has a kind of disheveled luxury as it’s portrayed in Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. In this production in Aurora, co-directors Jim Corti and Elizabeth Swanson meet this expectation. Angela Weber Miller’s set design is wonderfully detailed and evocative of the time period. The iconic corner apartment has a frayed baroque appearance, a casual and worn regality. The jazzy sounds of the French Quarter float through the windows. (Kevin O’Donnell is composer and audio associate.) Sensual maroon and faded floral wallpaper, creaky shutters and a rusty iron stove tell us it’s a working class venue, frequented by sweaty poker players and beer-drinkers. But the set is one thing; it takes actors to make it alive, stir it up. 

When Stanley Kowalski (Casey Hoekstra) swaggers into his house, “a king,” according to himself and the gendered guidelines of the time, I felt transported to the ‘40s, full of accents and mannerisms that would be cliché today but felt bold and true throughout the production. Alina Taber as Stella is equally natural and complementary; the two form a blue-collar chemistry of quick retorts and flirtatious ease. Stella, fastidious, fixes the house with grace, once in a while caught in her husband’s tug and wrapped in his arms. Stanley pulls chairs, tugs curtains, tinkers, grabs, shoves, slaps. He takes what he wants, a lion greased in the soot of a hard day’s work. In Stanley’s world, everything fits the way car parts do for a mechanic: straight lines, right angles, The arrival of Stella’s sister Blanche (Amanda Drinkall), a gauzy vagueness over his clear-cut life, provokes domestic tumult.

Alina Taber and Amanda Drinkall. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Drinkall excels as Blanche, a palpable hesitancy in her every word and step, a quivering uncertainty unfit for the constrained apartment. She searches the liquor cabinet needily. She pours a glass and then another, pretending this is her first, “light drinker” that she is. Stella’s torn sister suffers intermittent spells of delusion, her nostalgic gaze suddenly slathered in a flood of blue luminescence, the shadows about her eerily lengthened. (A dazzling excess from lighting designer Cat Wilson.) Drinkall pulls off an almost loony, wide-eyed mien, a convincing portrayal of delusion. In her silky ethereal choice of dress (credit to costume designer Mara Blumenfeld), she’s frail and weak of grip compared to the grease-stained Stanley, mechanic, bowling team captain, gambler, and beast. 

Stanley provokes and pushes, his voice is a predatory pounce, often in retort to Blanche; her words slither softly going always around the crux of her promiscuous past, often into the ears of an unassuming young man ignorant of such “magic,” as she calls it. This is so until she shrieks, lest her past is exposed. Her past relations with a 17-year old and her mysterious loss of the family plantation prompt Stanley to pry into her confused psyche and the lost heritage.

Amanda Drinkall and Ben Page. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The other cast members are no less vivid inhabitants of this world. Andrea Uppling’s Eunice, the tenant upstairs, is a tough woman with an edge to her voice that can tell off any man if he deserves it. Joshua L. Green plays Steve Hubbel, one of Stanley’s poker buddies, who courts a woman with true masculine prowess. Mitch (Ben Page) is the most timid of the poker group, almost lulled into Blanche’s delusion. He memorably reminds us how important it is that women aren’t around on poker night, given the violence surrounding their current co-ed experiment.

This production is vivid, passionate, and physical, a true masterpiece of realism. The performances are all-around stellar and together with a beautiful set create as immersive a drama as can be asked for.

Paramount Theatre’s A Streetcar Named Desire continues through April 21 at the Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Running time is 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission. The showtimes are 1:30 and 7pm Wednesday; 7pm Thursday; 8pm Friday; 2 and 8pm Saturday; 1 and 5:30pm Sunday. Tickets start at $40.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Anthony Neri