When Blanche DuBois arrives at her sister’s apartment in New Orleans, she’s not entirely welcome. The same could be said for Mary Lennox at her uncle’s estate in England. In literature as in life, it’s tough to be a down-on-your-luck relation.
This is the common thread that connects two theatrical productions currently playing in Durango. “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Durango High School and “The Secret Garden” by Merely Players at the Durango Arts Center offer a rare chance to experience two American masterworks.
Both productions begin with the arrival of a family member adrift in the world. The circumstances are different but tellingly human. “Streetcar” is Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning realistic drama from 1949. “Garden” is a cinematic musical of our time by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon based on the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Both succeed in telling a story about how tragedy may or may not be integrated into family history.
Different in style and form, a theme of survival unites both works. Blanche and Mary struggle to surmount a personal disaster. Conflicting memories permeate their efforts to move on, but in each production, memories surface differently – through flashbacks or music, and in “Garden” the recurring appearance of lost loved ones. That’s how memory works – sudden, shifting sounds or images bearing distant moments and rekindling forgotten emotions.
To say “Streetcar” is a challenge is an understatement for any theatrical company let alone high school players. With a double cast performing alternate nights, the gritty American classic receives a tight and credible production throughout. Director Ben Mattson plunges his actors swiftly into the action, and the tempo rarely slows except for a few intimate scenes.
The players move easily on Mattson and company’s spectacular, multilevel thrust stage. Key monologues are realistically delivered close to the audience Although vocal projection varies, the company generally rises to the demands of this fast-moving production. Only the sound design needed better integration into the fabric of the play. For example, the most important sound cue, the Varsouviana Polka, heard only by Blanche, surfaces bluntly. But all the other details in this disarmingly realistic tragedy seem true – from beer bottles to a flowered bathrobe.
“Garden” is a far more complex production, with overlapping scenes, fluid ghost characters and through lines that have to be skillfully integrated. Director Mona Wood-Patterson has worked her famous magic with a cast of 60. Designer Charles Ford has given the company a magical set that features a changing central garden plus wings that evoke rooms in a proper Yorkshire estate.
Music Director Ivy Walker seamlessly works with a recorded orchestral score and live singers. Surrounding excellent principals – Ellie Clark as Mary, Jason Lythgoe as Uncle Archibald, Stephen Bowers as Neville and Mandy Gardner as Lily – all the secondary characters and the ensemble sing with energy and tuneful enthusiasm.
It’s something of a miracle that these two productions have been staged in a small Western town. Realistic drama is difficult. A complex, contemporary musical is a challenge. Our high school troupe and Merely Players have given us a gift. See both if at all possible.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.