Blanche DuBois doesn't want realism. She wants magic.
And that makes her the ideal protagonist for Torn Space Theatre, the adventurous company whose raw production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" opened Thursday night in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library on Fillmore Avenue.
Much of the company's work, especially that of its co-founder and "Streetcar" director Dan Shanahan, lives in an uncomfortable space between dreaming and consciousness.
It's a space where confusion reigns, where images and bits of dialogue that might seem innocuous by the light of day can take on a sinister aspect. It is the place where nightmares are born.
No character in American drama inhabits that mental and emotional purgatory more fully than Blanche DuBois (Tilke Hill). She is the fragile and flawed figure at the center of Tennessee Williams' lyrical 1947 masterpiece, which tells the sordid tale of a disgraced former school teacher whose every interaction with reality only forces her to retreat deeper into her own tortured soul.
With help from gifted video designer Brian Milbrand, graphic designer Tim Stegner and set designer Kristina Siegel, Shanahan has attempted to open a wider door into DuBois' headspace than we're accustomed to.
The show lacks the often searing images of his non-narrative work. Instead, it employs its sophisticated design elements somewhat more traditionally, as supplements to the words themselves. And Hill's performance on opening night, though certainly more than competent, did not delve deep enough or reach high enough to fully expose
Blanche's tortured soul to the audience. (My impression, given Hill's undeniable talent, is that it will improve markedly as the run progresses.)
For these reasons, this production of "Streetcar" seems to be stuck in its own middle space. Shanahan shines when he eschews the narrative in pursuit of indelible stage pictures or images, but his attempt to bring Williams' play to life sometimes falls flat in places where it ought to soar.
He was influenced by Herbert Selby Jr.'s cult classic novel "Last Exit to Brooklyn," from which he lifted bits of street language ("GOWAY STUPID" was one). These were periodically projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. But it never becomes clear how Williams' play, which happily inhabits the thoroughly depraved Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans in the '50s, might benefit from being refracted through Selby's striking work.
Even so, the design of the production and a number of fine performances make the evening well worth the curious theatergoer's time. The use of live video in some scenes and the sophisticated sound design smartly extends Blanche's inner turmoil into the surrounding space. And Siegel's stark and simple set design, featuring a raw steel framework," is just right.
As Stanley Kowalski, Williams' testosterone-driven jack-in-the-box, Stan Klimecko turns in an alternately spine-chilling and sensitive performance that points up the emotional volatility of the character.
Christian Brandjes shines as Blanche's disenchanted suitor, Mitch, and Bentley's Stella contains the right balance of tenderness and naiveté.
In the end, the production is a valiant effort to transport audiences into the mind of one of the most perplexing and fascinating characters in drama.
The streetcar stops just short of the station, but the journey has its rewards.
"A Streetcar Named Desire"
2 1/2 Stars (Out of four)
Through Oct. 7 in Torn Space Theater, 612 Fillmore Ave. Tickets are $25. Call 812-5733 or visit www.tornspacetheater.com.