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Wounded bull, Southern belle

2/11/2015

The playbill for “A Streetcar Named Desire” includes an unusual listing — a “dialect coach.” The “coach” is Ann Woldt, from Simpson — and the woman knows her stuff. Not only did the voices ring true and straight out of Dixie, but also they came together in one bluesy crescendo after another. Last year, with “Les Miserables,” the Playhouse made a lot of noise — but this show makes more.

“A Streetcar Named Desire.” Des Moines Playhouse. Wed.-Sat., Feb. 11-14, and Feb. 18-21, 7:30 p.m. Sun. Feb. 15 & 22, 2 p.m.

“A Streetcar Named Desire.” Des Moines Playhouse. Wed.-Sat., Feb. 11-14, and Feb. 18-21, 7:30 p.m. Sun. Feb. 15 & 22, 2 p.m.

“Streetcar” remains famous for putting Marlon Brando on the map. Starting in 1947, playing the New Orleans trucker Stanley Kowalski, Brando conquered both Broadway and Hollywood. His wounded-bull bellow “Stel-la!” still inspires parody. Yet playwright Tennessee Williams was more concerned with another character, Blanche DuBois. The older sister to Stanley’s Stella, Blanche crowds unexpectedly into the couple’s French Quarter flat. She’s full of Southern charm but out of cash. Uncovering the secrets and ripping away the genteel mask brings out the beast in her brother-in-law.

In short, the play was never intended as “Stanley and the Pips.” It expresses the joy and sorrow of a whole way of life, the neighborhood served by the title streetcar, and this the Playhouse understands. The set was farmed out to Amber Miller, of Minneapolis, and she came up with a split-level approach. The floor level rotates, revealing the entire Kowalski apartment. But overhead, the neighbors’ balconies don’t move and everyone can see the tragedy unfold.

Director Thomas Woldt makes canny use of his background, showing good timing with the wails of saxophone in a funeral procession, for example. Most importantly, he sets up a balance of tensions. As Stanley and Blanche go for each other’s throats, he and Stella draw together. As Blanche sets Mitch dreaming of marriage and a wife with a proud old name, Mitch’s Army buddy Stanley pries the lid off the sister’s sordid past.StanleyBlanchecrop

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Every actor makes an impact. Josh Visnapuu, as the lonely Mitch, carries his big body as if it’s a hollow shell, easily broken. The depths of his voice suggest sobs. Vicky Stafford, though little seen locally, adapts impressively to the extreme swings of Stella’s role. During a heart-to-heart with Blanche, the wittiest repartee in the Williams script, she admits her husband gets rough, yet, smiling beneath sad eyes, laughs it off.

Another Iowa newcomer (though he had plenty of stage experience in Oregon) is Jamaal Gabriel Allan. Just leaning back cradling a beer, Allan’s Stanley radiates animal magnetism, yet he can pose a threat simply by leaving his mouth ajar. When he growls “a’ight,” it’s not all right. As for Blanche, she has tricks of her own. Kellie Kramer puts across her lies with buttoned-down intensity. Over time, her smile tightens, and her posture starts to lock up. She looks like a robot pitted against a Neanderthal, and that’s a battle you’ve got to see.

Overheard in the Lobby: Winterset Main Stage is featuring the precursor to “Frozen,” Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen.” CV

 

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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