Unforgettable performance highlights fine production of 'Streetcar'

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DOUG DEUCHLER

Here's your chance to witness a truly unforgettable performance. If you haven't been over to Village Players for a while, don't miss Julie Partyka as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She's incredible. Yes, the play is pushing 60, but this is an electrifying production.

Streetcar is perhaps Tennessee Williams' best-known and most parodied work. Even if they've never read it, most kids have seen comic bits where a drunk in a torn T-shirt is bellowing "Stella!" Director Michael Ryczek's moving production breathes new life into this still powerful warhorse.

Village Players was gracious enough to allow me to see one of their preview shows but, I can now admit, I held my breath as I took my seat. So often a production is still coming into focus and being fine-tuned right up until the last moment before opening night. So if something seemed off or fell flat, would it be fair for me to get critical since the production had not technically been born yet?

I had no cause for concern. Besides the fine ensemble work by the actors, Williams' humor is delightfully intact. People remember this as a tragic work, yet there is much that is funny, too. I think in a show so fraught with pain and anger, audiences sometimes feel insecure about laughing. But Tennessee himself howled aloud throughout every performance of every production he ever attended.

Just after World War II, Blanche DuBois (Partyka), a fading southern belle from Mississippi, shows up on a seedy side street of New Orleans suffering from an emotional breakdown. She's unemployed, broke, and friendless, so she's come to live with her younger sister, Stella (Jodi Wonio Kingsley), and her brutal, domineering husband Stanley Kowalski (Nico Tricoci) in their cramped, steamy French Quarter apartment.

Decades after Streetcar won its Pulitzer Prize, playwright Williams admitted all the characters were simply variations on his personality and his own issues. He was Blanche?#34;flighty, yet cultured, high-strung and inclined to put on airs, yet both repulsed and highly attracted to "rough trade" blue-collar men like macho Stanley who exude physical sexuality. Alcoholic Blanche is a neurotic mess, barely hidden behind a front of refinement and respectability. She's irritating and delusional, constantly worried her looks are fading, yet ever drawn to sweet-looking young guys. Early critics called Blanche DuBois a "nymphomaniac," a dated, sexist term. She is simply desperate and seeks escape from her tortured loneliness through casual sexual encounters.

It's hard now, in an era when shows have titles like Vagina Monologues and Urinetown and even puppet shows star human genitalia, to appreciate what a firestorm of controversy this play initially caused. Such a frank presentation of sexuality onstage raised eyebrows in 1947. It was earthshaking just to have 23-year-old Marlon Brando strip to the waist on stage. (Williams' plays were among the first to feature male characters as "sex objects.") The "back story" about Blanche's young bisexual husband was so shocking to audiences it was subsequently blurred almost to the point of removal in the film version in 1951.

Partyka immediately establishes Blanche's convoluted, erratic personality. A woman seated behind me told me on our way up the aisle she'd found the character most annoying. And indeed she is. Blanche is self-absorbed and delusional. But she's also so vulnerable and alone. She's her own worst enemy. I taught this play to high school kids for decades and though it pained me, they routinely felt the "crazy slut got just what she deserved." They always sided with Stanley Kowalski. Macho trumps magic, at least in the teen years.

Jodi Wonio Kingsley is without a doubt the best Stella I have seen. She's warm and loving to both her husband and her sister, yet she's conflicted. She knows Stanley's flaws yet his animal magnetism is a powerful aphrodisiac. And like so many women in relationships with domineering, often abusive men, she is both financially and emotionally dependent upon him.

Nico Tricoci is able to capture the various facets of Stanley that "made" Marlon Brando?#34;the dynamic, menacing sexual magnetism as well as the passionate anger, possessive love and cynicism. The role, by the way, was based on Tennessee Williams' current lover, a hard-drinking, short-tempered, working class rough-neck.

Kevin Bry is quite good as gentle, ordinary Mitch, Stanley's Army buddy and Blanche's "gentleman caller." He's an affable loser, a dull but decent "mama's boy."

Matt Dolgin and Sarah Rose Graber play the people who live upstairs. They're attractive young people yet they work well in roles often given to blowsy, beefy middle-aged types.

Christine Ferriter designed the bare framework set which works fairly well once you get your bearings with the delineation of the rooms and outdoor areas.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Feb. 26 at Village Players, 1010 Madison St. Ticket information at 524-1892 or www.village-players.org.

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