In the Blood

Two local theater companies explore conflicts within families

Deep into the 2017-2018 Theater season, we are still being served up challenging and thoughtful, funny and sometimes downright perplexing fare by Tucson's impressive array of theaters. Last week curtains (figurative, of course) went up on the stages of Invisible Theatre and the Arizona Repertory Theatre, two of the best of the bunch.

On the tiny IT stage is The Value of Names, a curious script that strives to be a play, but frankly, as we see it here, it doesn't quite qualify. There's little real movement or drama, and it's overly talky. It could probably be just as effective—or maybe even more so—as a reading. Its subject is certainly important and deserves to be aired, but in playwright Jeffry Sweet's hands it doesn't reach the status of dramatic literature.

The piece is about the fallout from Joe McCarthy's evil Communist witch-hunting of the entertainment industry in the early 1950s and how particularly it affects Benny Silverman (David Alexander Johnston). A respected comic actor, he was black-listed based on the testimony of Leo Greshen (Michael A. Candela), who was spared displacement from his career by testifying against Silverman. Now, a generation later, Silverman's daughter, Norma (Julianna Grantham), is an actress cast in a play to be directed by Greshen. She wants to change her last name to her mother's, and Silverman is upset because he thinks it's really about the "Silverman" tainting her career (although there are plenty of other Silvermans she could be possibly linked to, if linking were an important need for someone). Dad is not happy with all this, and when Greshen shows up not so much to apologize to Benny as to state his case for Benny giving Norma his blessing, the conflict heats up. Sorta.

But the real issue surfaces when Benny demonstrates that although he was certainly wronged, he has allowed himself to become poisoned by the course of events kicked off during those horrible days. Although he has still managed an enviable career as a performer, he feels it had to be done with lesser work, and his artistic soul was not able to be nurtured as he wanted and needed.

So the real substance of the piece is the perennial issue: Would you rather be right or happy?

The Fred Rodriguez-directed production seems flat, and one wonders if that's a result of Rodriguez and company or the play itself. It's probably some of both. Rodriguez has directed shows that have been quite successful, but not with these actors, who are a mixed bag of talent and skill. Johnston is a veteran of the stage, but Grantham and Candela are new to IT. Grantham is a recent University of Arizona graduate and shows her inexperience; Candela is a recent transplant to Tucson, and he's had plenty of experience in numerous areas of show biz. But there's a lack of chemistry between the crew. It's like they approached their characters from differing schools of acting.

The set by James Blair and Susan Claassen is very attractive but not really evocative of 1981, the year the play takes place, we are informed, an unexpected misstep by these two. Same with the costumes by the usual spot-on Maryann Trombino.

The substance of Sweet's script is meaty and deserves to be considered. In IT's incarnation, it provides a thoughtful evening of theater even if it doesn't soar with passion and insight.

A few miles away, The Arizona Repertory Theatre, featuring the work of acting students in the B.F.A degree program and those studying design and technology, has mounted a very fine production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams' classic mid-20th-century piece. Its status as a classic presents numerous challenges for professionals and even more for young students. But these guys dive in with enough skill and emotional honesty that Williams' tale of clashing classes and loss and the plight of sensitive souls in a hostile world is very well represented.

This is the story, of course, of one of theater's iconic characters, Blanche DuBois (Marissa Medina Munter). She shows up in New Orleans to visit—or to live with, it turns out—her sister Stella (Vinessa Vidoto) and Stella's husband, Stanley (Kasey Caruso). With an air of refinement in contrast to the working class, barely-scratching-by status of the Kowalskis, she angers Stanley with her contempt for "Polacks" and the couple's earthy ways. Stanley suspects she has stolen Stella's share of their family estate, so he seeks out potentially damning information about her past. He finds plenty. She has told us she lost her young husband, who committed suicide when she found that he was homosexual, but the information Stanley has uncovered shows us how desperately her life has spiraled downward. However, instead of recognizing a troubled soul, Stanley, in his black/white world devoid of nuance, sees a con artist. He uses the sad news to smash the pedestal he feels Blanche dishonestly stands atop and ruins any chance of her making a match with one of Stanley's friends, Mitch (Zach Zupke). In Stanley's mind, he has won the power struggle that justifies his further exploitation of Blanche.

There is such resonance in Williams' play. Director (and faculty member) Hank Stratton and cast have discovered enough depth in the characters and the nature of the conflict between the worlds of the DuBois and the Kowalskis that we are drawn into what really is the archetypal battle between earth and air, light and dark, masculine and feminine, truth and fact. The young actors embody their characters well enough that we feel the conflicting divide in ourselves: the contrast between a naked light bulb and a paper lantern that softens the light, the divide in negotiating the harsh world of what is and the softer world of what might or should be.

To tell the truth, I was a bit apprehensive about seeing Streetcar in the hands of young'uns, but I was won over by the respect with which they took on the story and the vulnerability necessary to embody the characters. Their work allows Williams' remarkable story to land in our hearts.

Student designers had the important job of creating the atmosphere in which the story unfolded. Jason Jamerson designed the set; Lawrence Ware, the lighting; Michael Cruz, costumes; Amber Rudnick, the sound.

There is one thing to watch in this production, young thespians, especially Munter: The theater space is large, and you are speaking with accents. Make sure your volume is adequate.

Williams himself struggled with the harsh societal judgment of his own sensitive, artistic nature, as well as his sister Rose's, which is reflected so clearly and painfully not only here but in other plays, like The Glass Menagerie. Seeing Blanche one can't help but recall Tom's poetic recognition of his sister Laura's distress at being different and her haunting he tried so hard to escape: "Blow out your candles, Laura...for nowadays the world is lit by lightning."

In Streetcar, as delivered by ART, that lightning strikes and destroys.

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