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When politicians urge a return to the family values and moral standards of an earlier age, they often cite the post- WWII era as a model. So this week’s glimpse provided this week of what that period’s leading playwrights made of those issues is intriguing. In The Potting Shed and A Streetcar Named Desire, Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams are both dealing with outcasts who return to the bosoms of their families and find scant comfort there. Whether they’d been maintaining their equilibrium by depending on the kindness of strangers or on the unkindness of relatives, the delicate creatures at the centers of these plays could hardly be said to be safer at home.
At the outset of Washington Stage Guild’s production of Greene’s theo-secular detective story, Britain’s leading atheist is dying and his wife has summoned the family—with one notable exception—to his bedside. That exception is youngest son James Callifer (Bill Largess), a milquetoasty, middle-aged newspaperman who has long been estranged from his father for reasons he can’t fathom and that no one else will talk about.
The family doctor is convinced that James’ presence would destroy the old man. James’ mother and brother blanche at the mention of him or of the backyard gardener’s shed in which something ghastly evidently happened long ago. James’ ex-wife is puzzled by their distress, but having been embraced by the family after her divorce from its black sheep, she goes along.
James shows up anyway, alerted to the familial powwow by an adolescent niece who’s on a frankness kick. Youthful, insouciant Anne (Sarah Stevenson) bridles at the white lies with which the Callifer clan papers over its differences, and has taken a public vow to tell only the truth for one entire month—a standard to which the playwright intends to hold the rest of his obfuscating characters, come hell or high dudgeon.
The evening contains more than a little of both (along with a bona fide miracle), but is mostly a determinedly polite affair—not so much a whodunit, as a whodunwhat with theological overtones. Greene, whose Roman Catholicism deeply influenced his work, is concerned specifically with matters of faith, redemption, and belief. If that makes the play sound ethereal, however, rest assured that its manner is purest Agatha Christie. Not for nothing is Greene thought of as one of the century’s best storytellers.
By giving his leading character amnesia about everything that happened up through that incident in the potting shed, and keeping the others so tight-lipped that information escapes them only in dribs and drabs, Greene maintains suspense neatly. As James questions his mother, his shrink, the gardener’s widow, and finally a cleric uncle with whom he’d long ago lost touch, it’s easy to get the impression that something earth-shaking is at stake. And indeed, when “the truth” finally comes out, it does have far-reaching implications, even if the way it impacts this particular family seems easily avoidable, and therefore a trifle silly in retrospect. Characters turn out to have agonized for decades over issues that might better have been discussed animatedly over tea.
Perhaps for that reason, when The Potting Shed opened on Broadway in 1957, its quiet familial passions were almost completely overshadowed by those of Eugene O’Neill’s earthier Tyrone clan in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Greene’s drama actually deals with more explosive issues, but does so with tact enough that patrons are likely to find it unduly decorous until midway through the second of its three acts.
At the WSG, Michael Haney’s sensible, unobtrusive direction provides delicate emphasis where needed to clarify the authorial debate, and is otherwise studiedly low-key. His biggest accomplishment may lie in the subdued performances he’s gotten from WSG’s acting company. Largess, who’s often cast in flashier leading-man roles for which he’s not particularly suited, finds just the right mix of reserve and insecurity to keep James compelling. Jean Schert ler’s Callifer matriarch is a study in matter-of-fact chilliness, Laura Giannarelli’s doting ex-wife remains nicely unsentimental throughout, and Stevenson’s adolescent truth-teller proves a thoroughly engaging brat. Conrad Feininger resists the urge to showboat in the evening’s most colorful role—that of the alcoholic, disenchanted priest who holds the key to the mystery.
Carl F. Gudenius’ setting suggests both the luxury of the Callifer household and the ascetic spareness of the apartments occupied by the family’s rogue members. Except for a lovely, quasi-supernatural glow that emanates from on high at a crucial moment, Gudenius lights the play sparely and naturally. It’s a production, in short, that modestly gets out of the way of the script, giving Greene’s words and ideas a chance to work their magic cumulatively and without too much interference. Over the course of the evening, they do.
The Washington Shakespeare Company’s approach to A Streetcar Named Desire is flashier, with individual moments of originality, and performances of real power that are intriguing in their own right, but don’t quite coalesce into a persuasive reading of the play. Among these moments:
Brian Hemmingsen’s hugely affecting Stanley Kowalski, ferocity temporarily abated and an aching sadness in his downcast eyes as he listens to Blanche’s “don’t hang back with the brutes” speech.
Rena Cherry Brown’s brittle Blanche DuBois, suddenly turning radiant and youthful as she allows herself to hear Mitch’s marriage proposal and murmurs, “sometimes there’s God so quickly” in his ear.
Nanna Ingvarsson’s Stella, eyes darting from husband Stanley to sister Blanche and back again, trying with rending eagerness to dispel tension at the dinner table.
Christopher Wilson’s Mitch, finally drunk enough to stand up for himself, but too drunk to stand up steadily, squinting at Blanche with growing resentment as he tries to determine how old she is.
I scribbled others in my program as well…all of them, oddly enough, about moments of ambivalence, in which characters were caught between two feelings, two obligations, or two other characters. I’m not sure what that indicates precisely, except that the performance at Church Street struck me as strongest during transitions, rather than during the explosions for which Streetcar is generally noted. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the evening doesn’t deliver the knockout punch of which the play is capable.
One reason may be that director Christopher Henley had to shift the production to the Church Street Theater at the last minute when it became clear that the WSC’s still-under-construction Arlington home at the Clark Street Playhouse wouldn’t be ready in time for the opening. Henley’s most eccentric directorial conceits tend to happen around the edges of the action—the saxophonist sequestered in an upstairs apartment, the gay street hustle that takes place downstage left while Blanche is making a panicked phone call—making it seem that Michael Murray’s setting is meant to sit more oddly in the theater space than it now does. At Church Street, it occupies the stage squarely, and not terribly artfully, making the Kowalski apartment seem overlarge and not nearly as claustrophobic as Blanche keeps saying it is. Except when Stanley invites his poker buddies over, there’s no real sense that the place is a pressure-cooker where tension is being built up. And that also ends up being the problem with the play: Strong as the performances are, it feels oddly diffuse, and not quite settled in.