Go big or go home.
The oft-repeated endorsement of excess has in recent years become the mantra for reality TV stars, professional athletes and producers looking to justify pricey Broadway spectacles.
But bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. In fact, in the case of the Writers' Theatre revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," the opposite holds true.
Here it's the small moments - each one exquisitely crafted by Director David Cromer and bearing his distinctive touch - that make this production of Tennessee Williams' iconic drama remarkable. Here, the director's provocative stage pictures illustrate as vividly and as poetically as Williams' dialogue the fear and passion, the anger and self-doubt animating the characters inhabiting the Kowalski's cramped, New Orleans apartment during the long, hot spring and summer of 1947.
Cromer's touch is evident the first time we see Blanche, magnificently played by Natasha Lowe who deftly pairs the character's carefully cultivated delicacy with a sharp edge. A fading Mississippi belle disgraced by her appetites, Blanche seeks refuge at the home of younger sister Stella (Stacy Stoltz) and Stella's husband, Stanley (the sinewy Matt Hawkins). Blanche first appears bathed in white light that gives her pale skin the appearance of porcelain. The pale blue suit she wears has a jacket that hints at a bustle, a subtle reference to the Victorian mores to which she pretends. She's greeted by her sister's landlady Eunice (Jenn Engstrom), whose ruddy complexion, risque manner and visible bra strap provides a coarse counterpoint to Blanche's prim attire.
There's the frantic sex scene between Stella and Stanley. Cromer artfully juxtaposes their desperate lovemaking with a reserved, equally desperate exchange between Blanche and her would-be suitor Mitch, impeccably underplayed by Danny McCarthy. Finally, there's the wholly original bit of staging, in which the Chicago director-turned-Broadway-darling makes corporeal Blanche's memories of the long-dead boy who haunts her still. It recalls Cromer's inspired 2008 production of The Hypocrites' "Our Town," and it's a masterstroke that Lowe makes mesmerizing.
Stoltz radiates warmth as younger sister Stella, who remains her own woman while remaining Stanley's wife. Hawkins, Stoltz's real-life husband, earns kudos for downplaying Stanley's machismo to reveal his insecurity and suggesting that Stanley half-believes he is the beast everyone thinks he is.
Still brutish but less overtly predatory, Hawkins' Stanley borders on the sympathetic - a trait that's underscored by his gut-wrenching cry after his fight with Stella, which suggests not so much desire as need. And despair.
It all unfolds on the arresting, rectangular set by designer Collette Pollard that bifurcates the nearly unrecognizable space to allow audience members to get up close and personal with the actors. The intimate set suits this unbearably intimate play, whose restlessness and unease is evocatively expressed by Josh Schmidt's sound design, characterized by the constant hum of conversation from too-close neighbors, the screech and rumble of the train, and the often caustic modern jazz that bleeds into the Kowalski flat.
Heather Gilbert's lighting - blinding train lights that trap and hold the characters, flickering candles that envelop them - also earns kudos for helping create the moments that make this revival memorable.
"A Streetcar Named Desire"
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe. (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through July 11. Also 2 p.m. June 9 and 30. No performances July 4. No 6 p.m. performances June 13 or July 11.
Running time: About three hours with two intermissions
Parking: Street parking nearby
Rating: For adults