THEATER REVIEW : A Stellar 'Streetcar' Plays at Will Geer

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Stella . . . Stella . . . Ste-el-la!" isn't the call of the wild you usually expect to hear in bucolic Topanga Canyon, but it's ringing out loud and clear these days.

The volatile world of Tennessee Williams' New Orleans has arrived on the outdoor stage of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum. And this "A Streetcar Named Desire" is no less than a definitive production of a key American play, thanks to a stellar cast headed by Ellen Geer's Blanche DuBois.

Williams' classic tale of pent-up and not so pent-up yearnings unfolds in a steamy, low-rent world of sexual tension and making do. Yet the central relationships--between a young wife, her husband and the wife's aging, delusional sister--are as much about "dreams deferred" as they are about this visceral reality.

The sisters DuBois share a past that invades their present. There is as much spoken as unspoken between them, and this bond is part of what keeps the husband, Stanley, excluded and resentful. It takes a team of actresses with more than your usual working rapport to wrest all there is from the demanding roles of Stella and Blanche.

Geer and Melora Marshall (Stella)--who are sisters in real life--offer a brilliantly realized study in contrasts while conveying effortlessly a complex familial bond.

Geer's Broadway-quality (or better) Blanche is brittle, neurotic, pathetic and dangerous by turns, but never simple. The actress segues seamlessly from one mood to the next, inspiring pity for and anger at the faded Southern flower, without ever letting us think we know all there is to know about the elder DuBois. Blanche remains a fascinating enigma.

A Blanche could not be all that Williams intended her to be without a strong Stella, Stanley (Richard Tyson) and Mitch (Tom Allard). Marshall captures both Stella's strength and her long-standing subjugation to her eccentric sister, while Tyson's aptly simian Stanley is both tender and brutal. Allard plays the lug who courts Blanche with conviction, holding his own alongside Geer's high-voltage performance. Also notable is sensual Ernestine Phillips as the upstairs neighbor, Eunice, although there's really not a weak link in this exceptional cast, gracefully directed by Heidi Davis.

Geer has been artistic director of her father's Theatricum Botanicum since 1979--a connection that makes Blanche's tale of trying to hang on to the old DuBois estate resonate even more--but this is a production worthy of a far wider audience than those who normally trek into the woodsy canyon northeast of Pacific Coast Highway. Theatergoers should dress warmly to ward off the evening cold, but there's plenty of heat radiating from this remote outdoor stage.

* "A Streetcar Named Desire," Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m. through July 31; Sundays only through Aug. 29. $8.50-$12. (310) 455-3723. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.

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