reviewed by Larry Adams

I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth.”

  • Blanche Dubois, A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire, first performed on Broadway in 1947, is one of the most critically acclaimed and widely produced plays of the past hundred years. Telling the story of former Southern belle Blanche DuBois, whose fall from social status and whose tenuous grip on reality place her in close quarters and perilous conflict with her younger sister and “common” brother-in-law, Streetcar has spawned innumerable stage productions and revivals across the globe and inspired an impressive variety of adaptations, from the Academy Award winning 1951 film to television, opera and even ballet. With its current effort now playing at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre in downtown Indianapolis, Catalyst Repertory becomes the latest to take on this classic Tennessee Williams drama, and soars with an inventive and finely crafted audience experience that would surely make the playwright proud.

New or rarely produced plays are always a bit of a risk for community theater, particularly when it comes time to put butts in seats; but tried and true staples of the stage like Streetcar come with their own set of challenges. How do you make a classic show your own? How do you deflect comparisons to the countless other productions, both amateur and professional, that have come before? Catalyst Repertory claims in their playbill that “New is what we do,” but does Streetcar really fit that bill? I will never be able to hear Blanche Dubois’s iconic and pitiful exit line without mentally flashing to a Simpsons episode and its hilariously inappropriate upbeat follow-up song, “You Can Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers!” So how do you create a “new” theatrical experience from something so familiar that even its parodies are part of American culture?

Director (and Catalyst Repertory Artistic Director) Casey Ross has clearly wrestled with these questions and answered them with her usual creative flair, and it starts the moment one enters the theatre. Under Ross’s direction, set designer Nick Kilgore has crafted one of the most impressive sets I have ever seen in community theater: a four-sided, multi-leveled, meticulously designed and executed bit of architecture occupying the center of the theater floor- truly a work of art on its own merit and worth the price of admission all by itself. Around it, as Ross explains in her “Letter from the Director,” “You’re literally seated to be looking through the walls of the glass Kowalski home, being in the round- surrounding our cast, and trapping them within their story.”

Nick Kilgore’s imaginative set for Catalyst’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Original music also features prominently in this production, setting the mood and subtly buttressing the show’s themes. Magic Thread Cabaret Artistic Director and show pianist Dustin Klein has mixed his own compositions with various standards to evoke a smoldering, mid- 20th century, New Orleans atmosphere which, backed by actress/singer Courtney Wiggins’s stylish vocals adds another unique dimension to the proceedings on the stage.

And then, of course, there’s the acting. Spoiler alert: they nail it. Ross has predictably assembled an exceptional cast to bring this story to life. Not everyone in theater gets to be Blanche or Stanley, of course, but each actor, no matter the size of the role, has clearly put in the time and work required to flesh out his or her character to the greatest degree possible while still fitting cohesively into the whole. Standouts among the more peripheral characters on this night were Audrey Stonerock as helpful upstairs neighbor Eunice Hubbell, and Mitchell Wray in a brief but charming appearance as The Young Collector. In addition, as Blanche’s suitor Mitch, Brian DeHeer gives us an endearing and heartstring-tugging portrayal of an anguished and lonely man who loses a love as quickly he found it.

Ian McCabe (center) as Stanley

The wildly talented Sara Castillo Dandurand absolutely shines as Blanche Dubois, commanding the stage at every turn in an undoubtedly exhausting performance. Although occasionally pushing it a bit over the top in the first act, Dandurand nevertheless manages to convey the character’s eccentricities and grandiose delusions with admirable restraint and realism, in a role that could otherwise easily devolve into Shatnerian levels of overacting.

Though Blanche is clearly the flashiest and most memorable role, Stanley and Stella Kowalski are surely the most challenging, nuanced and compelling characters on stage. “I don’t believe in villains or heroes,” Tennessee Williams once wrote, “only right or wrong ways individuals have taken.” That philosophy is never more evident than in the playwright’s portrayal of these two complex and troubled characters: three dimensional human beings with all their faults, strengths, dreams and moral ambiguities. Fortunately, their respective actors more than rise to the challenge. As Stanley, Ian McCabe gives a powerful performance as a husband who is both sincerely loving and shockingly abusive, strong and decisive yet fundamentally insecure. We are simultaneously drawn to him and repulsed by him, half-rooting for him in his battle against the manipulative Blanche and more than a little uncomfortable with ourselves for doing so.

Brian DeHeer as Mitch and Sara Castillo Dandurand as Blanche

Similarly, Anna Himes masterfully portrays Stella as a woman who is both strong and subdued, overshadowed but not completely overpowered by both a mentally unstable sister and an unpredictably explosive husband, neither fully trapped in an abusive marriage nor fully free. We as an audience are both sympathetic to her plight and disdainful of her toleration of it; but she (like most of us, if we’re honest) has done the cold calculus and made the mental compromises she must to survive.

(from left) Sara Castillo Dandurand as Blanche in a scene with Anna Himes as Stella

Even a production as finely tuned as this, however, has its imperfections, and I would be remiss and intellectually dishonest not to mention them here: Of course, a line bobble here and there. The occasional opening night slow sound cue. A jarringly anachronistic rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain, which, even though heavily stylized, took me right out of the moment.

In addition, much as I admired the ambitious set concept, it is not completely realized, and it doesn’t entirely work to the advantage of the audience. The action- perhaps inescapably- plays mainly to one side of the room, making the show virtually inaccessible to the opposite. Mercifully, seating was nixed there, but even in the resulting three-quarters round staging, I saw a number of patrons on the far ends trying to work their way in toward the center at intermission to get a better view. Pushing that glorious centerpiece set back a few meters- though sacrificing a true theater-in-the-round experience- would have opened the play up to a greater percentage of the patrons and likely saved some neck strain. My advice: get there early for a seat in the center section if you prefer faces over backs.

Most significantly, this production suffers to no small degree from its curious predilection for near-constant motion, particularly in the earlier scenes. Streetcar certainly has its moments of action, but in the end is intended to be a thoughtful piece, driven by character, themes and dialogue rather than relentless kinetic energy. Watching characters pop up and down out of their seats like a Whac-A-Mole game while frantically chasing each other around (and even through) invisible apartment walls becomes a bit distracting and definitely exhausting over the course of the ninety-minute first act; some quieter and more stationary moments would make the inevitable violent outbursts more impactful and give the audience (and the themes of the show) some time to breath. This was less of a problem in the shorter second act, but still left me at the end of the evening wondering if these characters would perhaps not be in quite such desperate straits had they all been properly medicated.

And finally, I’ll throw some shade on the author himself (and yeah, I know, he’s a world renowned and highly respected playwright, and I’m a part-time, amateur theater blogger who once paid extra for the Deluxe Edition of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”): Though Williams’s central characters are indeed brilliantly fleshed-out, there really is not much of a character arc for any of them. The final curtain finds them all in pretty much the same, sad condition in which they began, just more damaged and apparently not much the wiser for it. At its 1947 New York premiere, one critic labelled Streetcar the product of “an almost desperately morbid turn of mind,” while a few years later in London another dismissed it as “a messy little anecdote.” I can’t say I concur with either of those assessments, but be warned: This is not the feel-good show of the year. It isn’t quite Crucible-level depressing and futile, but seemingly not for lack of trying.

Theater, for all its reliance on “pretend,” is primarily about truth. We see truth most clearly in drama, of course, but even the most outlandish jokes in the broadest comedy require at least a kernel of it to properly land. Truth is not “what ought to be,” as Blanche would like to believe. Truth is, instead, a messy business. It’s pain, and injustice, and uncertainty, and loss. But it’s also hope, and love, and kindness and sympathy. Quibbles aside, Ross and company have succeeded in putting truth on full display in this production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and it’s a remarkable achievement by a talented cast and crew. We see ourselves and others we know in the inhabitants of this cramped apartment in the New Orleans French Quarter, and it’s not always a pretty sight. But it is the truth, and one we must face before we can ever aspire to “what ought to be.”

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at IndyFringe Basile Theatre through March 19th. For ticket info go to .

  • – photos by Indy Ghost Light Photography