Fran Pedersen

A Streetcar Named Desire at Burlington County Footlighters

Several years ago it seemed like every South Jersey community theatre produced a version of Sister Act. Now it seems like they’ve graduated to more sophisticated material. Tennessee Williams has become the new ubiquitous feature on community theatre marquees.

Burlington County Footlighters presented the latest rendition of Mr. Williams’ work in the form of A Streetcar Named Desire. I attended the opening night performance on January 25th.

Streetcar told the story of down-on-her luck dilettante Blanche DuBois (played by Morgan Petronis). She’d lost her husband, her job and the family estate in quick succession. While a common theme in country music, Williams applied this trio to the stage. He did so magnificently. The show received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the process.

Blanche’s sister Stella (played by Alex Davis) agreed to let her stay in the New Orleans home she shared with her husband Stanley Kowalski (John Helmke). Blanche found the accommodations lacking in the sophistication to which she’d accustomed herself. She also discovered Stanley to be a boorish “madman.” Stanley responded to Blanche’s contempt and haughty attitude by working to destroy her reputation.

So do audiences really need another installment of Tennessee Williams? With conflict this strong how could a real theatre fan ever get enough of it?

Tennessee Williams’ work presents a host of challenges for actors. Director Lou DiPilla selected a superb cast with which to meet them.

Morgan Petronis played an exceptional Blanche DuBois. The performer first deserves credit for taking on one of the most iconic roles in American theatre. In addition, the character presents several difficulties for those with the courage to play it. Let’s start with the writing.

Watching this show reminded me of a conversation I once had with the late Glenn Walker. In a discussion regarding HP Lovecraft, he criticized the author’s use of narration. When thumbing through one of Lovecraft’s stores, one can see blocks and blocks of text without dialog.

A reader could criticize the text of Streetcar for a similar reason. After perusing its pages just now, I witnessed blocks and blocks of dialog. This creates a problem for actors. People in the modern era are used to 5 second sound bites and Tweets of less than 140 characters. How can one engage contemporary audiences with such verbose material?

Ms. Petronis got it done. She delivered her lines in keeping with the sing-song lyricism of Williams’ dialog; adopting a very authentic Southern accent. One has to credit her for keeping the cadence without misspeaking any of her lines.

Now that was just the speaking facet of the role. Not only did Williams’ protagonist change throughout the story, the character became more of a fabulist than even Willy Loman.

Ms. Petronis played this liar very believably. Even as someone familiar with the play, I struggled to tell when Blanche told the truth or fibbed. I liked the casual ways Ms. Petronis said that she’d only have one drink…or two. She strolled around the stage in finery claiming an old suitor tried to contact her. While the audience could tell the character had begun losing touch with reality, Ms. Petronis portrayed Blanche as though SHE believed the things she said. That’s a very difficult balance and the performer executed it brilliantly.

Tennessee Williams didn’t limit himself to only making Blanche a complex character. His antagonist possessed some complexities of his own. The Stanley role reminded me a bit of the title character from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Only this one contained much more attitude, anger and vindictiveness. John Helmke met the role’s demands.

Mr. Helmke played well opposite Ms. Petronis. As highbrow as she made Blanche seem he enacted Stanley as the opposite. His rough accent and the way he shifted his weight while walking suited the character. With equal dexterity Mr. Helmke played a hard-drinking “one-of-the-guys”, a destructive alcoholic and a contrite husband. The latter a challenging task for a character harboring a low opinion of women. The realistic way he begged for Stella’s forgiveness made me cringe.

Alex Davis played Stella, the bridge between these two poles. The character harkened back to Shakespeare’s Brutus. Like him, Stella meant well, but always made the wrong decisions. The nonchalant way in which Ms. Davis would either make excuses for or express enjoyment over Stanley’s behavior was chilling. Ms. Davis’ rendition showed Stella didn’t see any flaws with his actions.

Fran Pedersen played a phenomenal love interest for Blanche, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Mr. Pedersen stumbled over his words and laughed awkwardly while attempting to woo her. When Stanley told him what he’d discovered about Blanche, Mr. Pederson adapted. With disheveled hair he raged at her, sounding almost as angry as Stanley. At the show’s end he gave her sad looks that expressed his regret better than words.

Blanche complained about her “nerves” throughout the show. After watching performances this powerful, I’m sure the audience felt a little unsettled.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Kori Rife, Matt Dell’Olio, Shay Fuller, Jeff Rife, Tim Schumann, Lauren DiPilla and Brian Wayman.

In December of 2016 I attended Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of A Christmas Carol. Set designer Jim Frazer crafted a Christmas village that converted the stage into a real-life Norman Rockwell painting. I didn’t think it possible to create a stage set better than that one. Then came The Explorers’ Club. After this show, I’ll start adding the words to date whenever I describe Mr. Frazer’s “best.”

When I entered the building I felt like I strolled right into the French Quarter.  The set for Streetcar transformed the stage into vintage New Orleans. The broken shutters, the wood balcony and the cerulean backdrop gave the setting authenticity. The flickering streetlamps at both sides of the audience created an eerie ambiance when the house lights (also designed by Mr. Frazer) dimmed.

One wouldn’t expect a non-musical drama to contain good singing. Footlighters’ presentation of Streetcar did. Carla Ezell added her soulful vocal prowess to the production. Since the action occurred in the Big Easy, instrumental jazz music played throughout the performance.

That brings me to my one criticism of the show. With all the jazz music I’d hoped the Mike Parisi Trio would return to the Footlighters stage. They played at the Winter Warmer the company hosted in December. Their jazz stylings would have fit well with this ambiance. Maybe the next theatre company will take note when it presents Tennessee Williams.

The brutality and brilliance of A Streetcar Named Desire will never lack relevance. The cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters demonstrated why it will always be a timeless masterpiece.

While Williams’ work may be timeless, time is running out at Burlington County Footlighters. Theatre fans shouldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers to buy tickets for them. They have until February 9th to see the show. After that they can still stand outside the building yelling, “Stella! Stella!” They’ll receive a much different response than Stanley Kowalski, however.

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Theater Review – Dr. Cook’s Garden at Bridge Players Theater Company

Many think horticultural concepts can’t be combined with those of mass murder. I’ve got news for those people. It’s been done by the Bridge Players Theater Company in Burlington, NJ. In fact, they melded the two extremely well this May in their production of Ira Levin’s disturbing piece Dr. Cook’s Garden.

The play itself premiered in September of 1967. At that time America entered a period of deep introspection. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, people questioned our involvement in Viet Nam, and the ‘Summer of Love’ just occurred. During this era our nation re-examined many concepts that once seemed sacrosanct. In this sense, Dr. Cook’s Garden reflected the questioning nature of the time period.

The Bridge Players Production featured Fran Pederson in the role of Dr. Jim Tennyson. Like many in those days, the draft board summoned him to report for examination. He needed to obtain childhood medical records to excuse him from serving in the military. This led him to visit his home town of Greenfield Center, Vermont. He met with his mentor and local doctor Dr. Leonard Cook, played by Bob Beaucheane, to acquire them.

Citing medical issues from childhood to avoid military service may sound ethically dubious. As the play went on I realized that plot point merely a teaser.  The moral ambiguity kept coming. In the course of the visit Dr. Tennyson spoke with the doctor’s housemaid and his nurse. (Played by Marti Palmieri and Regina Deavitt.) Dr. Tennyson learned that many people he knew before leaving for medical school had died. He became suspicious. Upon speaking with the doctor’s gardener (played by Mike McCollum) and investigating his records, Dr. Tennyson suspected that Dr. Cook may have been killing his patients.  He confronted the man with these allegations.

The real drama then commenced. Pederson delivered accusations with assurance and conviction. Beauchane’s reserved, laconic assertions of innocence had this reviewer convinced he did nothing wrong. At least until he calmly admitted he did.

Then the drama went into overdrive.  Pederson and Beaucheane played off each other exceptionally well. In the course of their argument they debated Dr. Cook’s faith that his “removals” turned Greenfield Center into an ideal community. Dr. Tennyson rebutted that murder couldn’t be justified in the interest of bettering society. The moral arguments kept coming along with an exceptional plot twist. At times I didn’t know if I was watching theater or hearing a disquisition on philosophy. I quickly realized the latter wouldn’t have engrossed me such. Kudos to Pederson and Beaucheane. They presented a scene that could’ve been pedantic and made it engaging.

Beaucheane also served as the lighting director on this project. He used his dual roles to outstanding effect. One scene in Dr. Cook’s examination room really grabbed me. While speaking to someone on the phone he expressed concern that his nemesis had a terminal illness. The dim illumination made Beaucheane appear dark and sinister. Through the performance’s early scenes his warm tone of voice and laid back mannerisms resembled those of a devoted town doctor. Due to lighting and superb acting ability he transformed into the Angel of Death.

I also enjoyed the way the Bridge Players Theater Company established the scene. Before the show and during intermission, they played 1960’s Rock and Roll over the loudspeakers. The peace symbol Mike McCollum wore on his forehead added an authentic reference to the era, as well.

Dr. Cook’s Garden is the greatest masterpiece I’d never heard of. In the playbill Director Alice Weber wrote, “I hope you agree with me that Dr. Cook’s Garden raises some difficult questions, and I hope it makes you think a little bit as you make your way home.” It sure did. The more I contemplate the myriad ethical issues raised in the play I think about it even more. The show runs through May 16th.