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'A Streetcar Named Desire'

When fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois finds herself down on her luck, she moves in with her younger sister, Stella, and Stella's husband, the pugnacious Stanley Kowalski.

When Kowalski bristles at her high-handed dismissal of him, the two hurtle toward an inevitable clash in Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "A Streetcar Named Desire."

The play previews at 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 19, and opens at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 20, in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets cost $25, $59, $71 or $86 and can be purchased by calling 541-482-4331 or online at www.osfashland.org.

Director Christopher Liam Moore, who directed OSF's 2010 production of Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," assembled the same production team for "Streetcar." Set design is by Christopher Acebo, costumes are by Alex Jaeger, Andre J. Pluess is sound designer and composer, and dramaturg is Lydia Garcia.

Danforth Comins, who played Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," stars as Kowalski, Nell Geisslinger plays Stella, and Kate Mulligan plays DuBois. Jeffrey King is the pivotal suitor, Mitch.

In many ways, it is a shame that the most vivid images from "A Streetcar Named Desire" come to us from the 1951 Hollywood film. Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh's powerful performances don't fully convey the dramatic complexity of Williams' jolting 1947 play.

"Williams' stage directions are extremely evocative as well as detailed," Garcia says. "They often describe the contradictions of the characters, the characters' inner motivations, what they are thinking while they are saying the dialogue.

"There is a bit of Williams in all his characters, especially Blanche," Garcia adds. "Williams himself is both attracted and repelled by the raw sexuality and brashness of Stanley."

Garcia also points out that many critics see Williams as self-hating, even homophobic, because his homosexual characters come to bad ends. But given the time frame of "A Streetcar Named Desire," even discussing homosexuality on stage was daring.

"Blanche is haunted by her gay husband's suicide after she confronts him," Garcia says. "She bears the guilt of turning away, not accepting him with compassion. Williams uses this as a mirror of society's treatment of homosexuality. When Blanche explains 'cruelty is the worst sin,' she is talking about herself."

Garcia says that director Moore resisted moving the play from the social realities of the time in which it was written.

"This is just after World War II, and the South was rapidly changing," she says. "As a seaport, New Orleans was always a melting pot, and the working-class neighborhood of the French Quarter in 'Streetcar' was especially so. It's a contrast to the rural society around it and the rapid social changes of the rural South — racial changes and gender dynamics — with its accompanying nostalgia and illusions."

For "Streetcar," Acebo has provided a very different design concept from the diaphanous fabrics and steamy plantation atmosphere of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

"The look of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' is all angles and straight lines; steel as opposed to fabric," Garcia says. She describes the core of the set as a massive wall looming outward toward the audience.

"Everything on stage is placed a bit off-kilter, giving the illusion of vertigo. It conveys to the audience the feeling of Blanche's abrupt culture shock.

"There are no scenic boundary walls between the Latin Quarter street and Blanche and Stanley's apartment to isolate the action," Garcia adds. "There is no place for Blanche to hide, no place for her to escape — except for that bathroom."

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Stanley (Danforth Comins), Blanche DuBois (Kate Mulligan) and Stella (Nell Geisslinger, seated) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.'