Even if you've never seen A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams's masterpiece of New Orleans, you will still enjoy Mark Sam Rosenthal's one-man show, which picks up with the divine, if a bit sullied, Blanche DuBois after Hurricane Katrina hits her adopted hometown and the levees drown it. Never mind that some 40 years or more have passed. Blanche is the same Blanche we've known and loved—alone, victimized, defenseless, vulnerable—or is she?
Such is the New Orleans we discover in the after-aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where the story begins. Blanche uncovers the remains of the slum apartment she shared with sister Stella, brother-in-law Stanley, and their baby, who are missing. Essentially all Blanche finds worth retaining amidst the ruin is her beloved valise, which, surprisingly, remains intact and untarnished (unlike her reputation). In it is all that Blanche has in the world—all she ever really did have: a few wigs, some booze, and the other trappings of a femininity long forgotten by the modern world.
From the inundated remains of her home she is shuttled to the Superdome, where she eloquently reports "everyone appeared to be somebody's maid yet this place is filthy," to temporary housing at an AmeriSuites in Shreveport and ultimately to Arizona, where she is adopted by a church and job-placed at a Popeye's fast food restaurant. During her travails Blanche battles bureaucracy, drug addiction, alcoholism, and the threatening unwashed masses that make up the real world.
Mark Sam Rosenthal, who plays Blanche and who wrote the show, is a native Louisianan who has drawn upon the awful experiences of his loved ones to give Blanche's flight and plight authenticity. It is clear that Rosenthal feels a love for New Orleans and its people as well as the character of Blanche. My initial fears that this show would be charming but campy were easily assuaged by the triumphant Rosenthal and smart, snappy director Todd Parmley who has resisted the cliches of a man in drag in a dream role.
Instead they develop Blanche into a real person with real fears and a truly dire predicament: Blanche cannot find her sister and the rest of her family and begins to fear she never will. Blanche blacked out during the deluge and can't, or won't, remember what happened to them. Like the Mardi Gras beads that adorn the wreckage littering the set (created with superb design by Kelly Tighe), Blanche is tarnished and tacky yet somehow irresistible.
That sentiment is well-supported by Sonia Baidya's imaginative lighting design. Baidya's use of light from within the valise is an especially nice touch, providing something warm, wondrous, and safe in a land where nothing else is. The costumes, by Angelina Margolis, are a curious juxtaposition, designed as much for Mr. Rosenthal as Ms. DuBois. Tennis shoes, a wife beater and a tiara? Like a fine wine they pair with prop master David Yarritu's well-edited choices, including said valise, an old-time perfume bottle, and a rather serious-looking letter from FEMA. The sound design, by Scott Rosenthal and Bernard Fox with assistance from Ien DeNio, is playful and doesn't overburden us with the usual New Orleans-themed offerings. All in all, the designers have done a good job of creating a real world for Blanche by supporting and furthering each other's choices.
The real star of the designer show, though, may just be the wigs. Created by J. Jared Janas and Rob Greene, the glorious blonde wigs that come to represent Blanche's transformation from untouched to untouchable, and the last vestige to the woman of old she once was, nearly compete with Rosenthal for our attention. Luckily, Rosenthal is a talented actor with an excellent sense of both pace and place who reminds us that it's okay to laugh at the horror if that's what helps you get through it. Time and again he brings us to the point of the piece, which is that Blanche, like New Orleans and its inhabitants, are survivors.
Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire is at once funny and strange, and, yes, sad. The passion that Blanche feels comes from the compassion that Rosenthal has for the plight of the fragile, the weak, and the underserved. He asks us whether the fragile parts within us can ever truly be safe. I was surprised to hear Blanche's answer at the end of this piece. No doubt you will be too.