Stage

Sweet Bird of Youth
A Streetcar Named Desire. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Richard Seyd. Starring Sheila Kelley, Marco Barricelli, Matt DeCaro, and Michelle Elise Duffy. Presented by ACT at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), through Nov. 23. Call 346-7805.

Fifty years after its opening on Broadway, a new production at ACT of A Streetcar Named Desire shows that Blanche DuBois' disintegration has aged better than even the youth-obsessed Southern belle could have dreamed. Set designer John Iacovelli's peeling columns and wrought-iron trellises beautifully depict the lively decay of the New Orleans French Quarter of the 1940s as well as the fragile claustrophobia of the psychic landscape. Armed with a dynamic cast and a dark, bluesy score by sound designer Garth Hemphill and composer Michael Roth, director Richard Seyd deftly unfurls one of the most important and disturbing tales in the American canon.

Grand spectacles of sentiment rarely survive the lacerating irony endemic to our culture today. But Williams' enduring empathy for the swaggering, explosive Stanley and his imperious, deluded sister-in-law preserves the story's contemporary resonance. Yes, Blanche now seems excessively fixated on the fear of growing old; Stanley's assumption that he is the "king" of his house draws giggles from the audience. And Stella's lackadaisical acceptance of her husband's violent outbursts seems old-fashioned, even bizarre. Yet Williams' voices for his characters are timelessly eloquent. He embeds his many themes -- class conflict, sexuality, violence, obsessions with youth, beauty, and money -- through those voices into characters so complicated they can never be reduced to mere types.

Seyd successfully creates a sense of caged passions under pressure and elicits remarkable performances from his actors. Marco Barricelli's Stanley is never simply a brutal tyrant. He's an injured man, a goofy adolescent, a mournful lover. His ruthlessness -- until his final act of violence -- always seems to spring from a place of sheer vulnerability, allowing us to understand, and even feel, Stella's attraction. The cherubic Michelle Elise Duffy imbues Stella with a willfulness and sensuality that make her decision to stand by Stanley feel doubly inevitable: Both her weakness and her strength push her toward the same tragic choice. Matt DeCaro, as Blanche's lonely suitor, Mitch, conveys his love for his mother with an erratic courage that dispels any traces of the pathetic "mama's boy" stereotype.

Only Sheila Kelley as Blanche stumbles before she finds her rhythm. Kelley, the youthful TV star, is not the image of Blanche we have from the Vivien Leigh role in the movie. Seyd says in the program that he cast DuBois in her early 30s against tradition but in accordance with Williams' original notes. This has a subtle but powerful influence on the way we perceive Blanche in ACT's current production. Here, we see a younger Blanche with fewer delusions, rather than a faded, middle-aged woman flouncing around like a girl. We witness the creation of her madness, rather than gawk at a madness already taken hold.

Despite her youth and beauty, Kelley in the first act gives the impression of a brittle, sparrowlike schoolmarm, not a fading Southern belle. She flits about, drinking compulsively but wielding little of the physicality that a woman with her experience might display. As the play unfolds, however, Kelley rises to the formidable demands of her role, dancing a jagged line between wretched egotism and fey insecurity. Yet when she finally lets down her defenses to display, for a brief moment, her true motives in her plans to ensnare and marry Mitch, she becomes all the more affecting. "I want to deceive him long enough to make him want me," she whimpers to Stella. Kelley finally begins to unravel when she graphically describes her lover's suicide. Voice cracked and ragged, body electric with sorrow, the well-groomed regular on L.A. Law suddenly disappears behind the ferocious survivor of 50 years of staged madness, the phoenix-like Blanche DuBois.

-- Carol Lloyd

Urban Cowgirls
True West. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Aida Jones. Starring Carolyn Bates, Kerry LaBelle, Saul Kimmer, and Debra Catanzaro. At Arena Interplay, 701 Oak (at Fillmore), through Nov. 16. Call 982-6422.

Last January, Aida Jones directed a sex-swapped version of The Zoo Story with Carolyn Bates cast as the straight-laced book executive sitting in Central Park and Kerry La Belle as the ranting transient. Now the same three women are giving the same treatment to True West, and it works so well that a German woman sitting next to me on opening night may never know Sam Shepard wrote the parts for men. The story is a duet between Austin and Lee, siblings who try to write a screenplay together in their mother's suburban home. Bates plays the straight-laced part again -- Austin, the Ivy League-educated screenwriter -- and La Belle plays her drunken, jealous counterpart, Lee. They start to feud when a producer named Saul buys the outline of a cheesy western from Lee and chooses Austin to co-write it, scrapping one of Austin's movie deals in the process. They also switch roles: Austin starts swilling beer and Old Crow while Lee tries, responsibly, to peck at Austin's typewriter.

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