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A Different Desire

Tennessee Williams' Streetcar comes to a stop at the Alley

The reason for the choice, apparently, is that the Alley wanted to reward one of its resident actors. It would seem that for Annalee Jefferies, who's so moving at being vulnerable, Blanche is an ideal role. And sure enough, her Blanche is a fine-spun creation who, as Williams writes, never lies in her heart, no matter how much she lives in illusions. At turns graceful and desperate, Jefferies is particularly touching delivering Blanche's revelations, such as when she's angry, sad and guilt-ridden when recounting how her long-ago marriage to her young "delicate" husband ended, or when she musters perverse satisfaction while admitting that at one point she was indeed a resident of the Flamingo, a hotel with the most unseemly of reputations. When she's alone with her character, Jefferies is hauntingly doomed.

But it's her interactions with others that prevents Jefferies from reaching the tragic heights of her Harper in Angels in America and her Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending, two of the most affecting performances I've ever seen. While she struggles in palpable dread at Stanley's incipient rape, her descent into madness is missing. As Stanley chips away at her ethereal veneer, she should become more and more fragile, but she doesn't. A bit too weathered to be precarious, Jefferies' Blanche seems at her wit's end more than at the end of her rope. Much of what beguiles in Streetcar is how tantalizing Blanche is -- with beau Mitch, the awkward mama's boy whose "great capacity for devotion" ultimately doesn't include her; with a teenage paper boy who rouses illicit longings within her; with Stella, a form of what can be called her craven self; and with Stanley, her antithesis. But Jefferies doesn't weave tenuous spells as much as she gets tangled in them.

The cast is in part responsible for the production's having feeling but not true intimacy or poetry (Alyssa Bresnahan is more voluptuous in body than persona as Stella, and James Black, though somewhat better, is more stuntedly constricted than painfully sincere as Mitch), but so is director Michael Wilson, who would rather play up technical considerations than establish the passion of pure human exposure. A few of his machinations are startling, such as ending Act One with a glaring white light shining on Blanche as she rapturously says to Mitch, whose affections at this point she thinks she has won, "Sometimes there's God so quickly." But most of his machinations are intrusive, as when the French Quarter riffraff comes to a screeching halt upon Blanche's initial entrance.

The riffraff are as important to Wilson as anything else, which encapsulates the production's biggest problem. Though Williams calls for symbolic use of a torch singer, sailors, vendors, whores, transvestites and freaks, they should reflect what's going on with the principal cast; as Wilson has it, it's the other way around. This inversion frequently warps the text and always distracts from it. So determined is Wilson to have outside forces impact upon things that a combination heartbeat/boiling kettle/levitation music is only one of the many shrill sound effects that deafen the action. Even Blanche's rape and its final impact can't be heard over the din.

Wilson and his cast should have attended to Jeff Cowie, whose set is, as usual, stunningly evocative. But the person who best illuminates Streetcar is lighting designer Michael Lincoln. One small example: the spotlight that shines on Blanche while she recounts how she lost her beloved plantation home keeps decapitating her courtesy of a ceiling fan, and Stella meanwhile is divided in the shadows cast from wooden shutters.

(A final note: with this review, I give up my regular aisle seat. I've enjoyed the run.)

A Streetcar Named Desire plays through April 27 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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