By John Quinn
Whatever happened to Blanche Dubois, the tragic central character of “A Streetcar Named Desire?” In the last scene, she is led away to an “institution,” uttering one of the saddest farewells in theater, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Yet is her story ended?
Playwright Barbara Neri says no. Her latest work, “Unlocking Desire,” is a centennial birthday card for one of the greats of the American theater, Tennessee Williams.
With few exceptions, Williams’ heroines are damaged, fragile women. If you’re only familiar with “Streetcar” from the 1951 film, then you’ve missed the essence of Blanche Dubois. Hays Office censorship eliminated uncomfortable sexual references. To recap: At 16, Blanche eloped with the equally young Alan Grey. Finding him in a compromising position with another man, she denounces him. The humiliated Alan commits suicide, driving Blanche over the edge. She’s already unstable before showing up at her sister’s home in New Orleans, only to be eventually raped by her brother-in-law.
“Unlocking Desire” opens with Blanche’s arrival at the Louisiana Retreat, where her steamer trunk is unceremoniously raided by her fellow “guests.” There’s Hank (Sean Rodriguez), the army veteran dealing with post traumatic distress, and the effeminate Raoul (Eric Niece), who’s been locked away to “straighten out.” There too are Ozzie (Madelyn Porter), Jim (J. Michael Morgan), Rose (Kirsten Wagner) and Violante (Yolonda Perez). All are slightly off-balance, yet not bad enough to commit to the insane asylum.
Neri knows how to keep an audience on its toes. Just when one has settled in and assumes, given several references to Dante, that Blanche is experiencing Purgatorio on earth, she flips the plot in a new and surprising direction. Saying more would spoil one of the most remarkable twists we’re likely to encounter.
Structurally, the second act is stronger than the first. Exposition and character development take time, but here there are drags in the tempo. It is especially noticeable when actions in silence aren’t enough to hold our attention.
Neri returns often to the metaphor of mirrors showing both truth and illusion. This theme carries over into the setting. The wall drapes of the Marlene Boll Theater are swept back, exchanging the cozy “black box” for bleak cinder block and gray steel doors. The stark space is used to full advantage by scenic designer Elisa Limberg’s fluid set – movable walls of wide spaced wooden slats. The scene changes are done in “blue light” convention, but they’re so watchable one wonders if changes don’t merit full lighting.
The play contains a multi-media show of video and still photography by Alliva Zivich, including interesting views of the actual Louisiana Retreat and derelict plantation houses. While they clearly define past and present, the script is excellent at doing that without any help.
The cast is excellent, but Linda Rabin Hammell is a standout. Blanche is a multi-layered character whether penned by Williams or by Neri, and director John Jakery has allowed Hammell to explore her depths. At first glance, the Blanche of “Streetcar” is not the Blanche we meet in “Unlocking Desire.” Here she seems remarkably resilient. Yet as the plot progresses, the facets paradoxically merge.
“Unlocking Desire” is a study of sin and forgiveness, of guilt and redemption. Ultimately, though, its strongest message may have been voiced by my favorite philosopher, Yogi Berra. In story, as in life, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Khoros Inc. at Marlene Boll Theater, 1401 Broadway, Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 8, plus Thursday, Oct. 6. $20. http://www.unlockingdesire.com