I arrived at A Streetcar Named Desire at the Denver Center with high expectations. Israel Hicks has directed almost all of August Wilson's plays for this theater, mounting layered, pitch-perfect productions and, in the process, creating one of the finest acting ensembles you'll find anywhere. When he proposed using the same actors in an all-black production of Tennessee Williams's classic, it seemed we were in for an exciting -- even revelatory -- evening of theater. Instead, there was something about the three hours I spent watching Streetcar that struck me as odd, even downright creepy. This was partly due to flaws in the production and partly because of the strange reactions of some members of the audience.
At the beginning of the play, Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle who has lost the family estate, arrives at the home of her sister Stella in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Quarter is a near-mythical place to Williams, sultry and hot, filled with jazz music and the scent of decay, evocative of both sensuality and death. Stella is living in a haze of blissful eroticism with her working-class husband, Stanley, a sexy lout who's violent and tender by turns. Blanche is horrified by her brother-in-law. Stanley is infuriated by Blanche's pretensions. He also realizes instantly that she's a threat to his marriage. There's a vicious dynamic of attraction and repulsion between these two damaged but seductive people. The situation is complicated by the close quarters in which the three protagonists live.
Add to all this Tennessee Williams's feverish, stylized and poetic writing -- which has to be spoken with complete conviction if it's not to appear ridiculous or over the top -- along with the memory of the iconic performances of Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Vivien Leigh in the 1951 film, and you've got a real challenge for a director.
The cast at the Denver Center is talented, but much of the direction strikes me as ill-conceived. The most glaring problem is Kim Staunton's unsympathetic performance as Blanche DuBois. It's true, Blanche is far from admirable. She's a liar, an alcoholic and a manipulator. She exploits her sister. She's outrageously rude to (and about) Stanley. But the script makes it clear that these faults stem from her intense pain and vulnerability. And she's also supposed to be charming. All her desperate little stratagems -- her love of candlelight, her brave attempts to create what she calls "magic" in her sister's grimly utilitarian apartment, her longing for love and protection -- are manifestations of a genuine yearning for poetry and transcendence.
Williams has said that Streetcar is about the "ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." I admired Kim Staunton tremendously in last year's King Hedley II, and she certainly has all the emotional power Blanche's big scenes require, but her rendition of the character is anything but sensitive and tender. She doesn't even show real affection for her sister. And though Blanche moves in an arc from fragile but functional to complete madness, Staunton doesn't change much over the course of the play, but sounds one loud, frantic, jerky note throughout. The trouble is, if Blanche is a wreck from the beginning -- and you don't particularly like her anyway -- there's nowhere for Streetcar to go.
Terrence Riggins doesn't know how to be boring on stage. Whatever his choices, he holds your attention, and his Stanley is entirely original. He makes the man a bit of a goof, albeit a dangerous one. He underplays some of the big moments, bringing anguished love rather than raw demand and sexuality to Stanley's famous roar: "Stella!" In response to Stella's reproach about his table manners and his greasy hands, he yells at her with a mouth full of food, in one of those insightful and unexpected moments that bring a character to surprising life.
January LaVoy is a lovely, gentle Stella, and you do feel for her. Harvy Blanks, too, is sympathetic as decent, honest Mitch. I liked Candy Brown's poised Eunice. Charles Weldon has five minutes at the very end of the play, and damned if he doesn't bring a moment of pure stillness and grace to the proceedings.
On the evening I attended, the audience began laughing while Stanley ranted at Stella that Blanche was trying to cheat her, citing the Napoleonic code and murmuring darkly about the experts he was going to bring in to check this out. In that context, laughter seemed appropriate, and I was impressed at the actors' and director's willingness to mine the play's humor. But the titters didn't die down as the evening wore on; they intensified. At one point, Blanche is alone in the house when a boy of around seventeen arrives to collect for the newspaper. She contemplates seducing him. It's a dangerous, fraught moment. We know that she's a destructive woman who was dismissed from a teaching post because she seduced a student. We also know that she sees in this youth an embodiment of the young husband she lost to suicide. In most productions, this scene is both agonizing and touching. At the Denver Center, the audience was convulsed with laughter.
And it didn't stop there. For some audience members, apparently, even the rape scene was irresistibly funny.
In a way, the titters were excusable. Given actors with the passion and power both Riggins and Staunton can so easily muster, there's no excuse whatever for blowing this scene, but blow it Hicks did, as Stanley, clad in grotesquely unflattering purple pajamas, carried Blanche off stage in the direction of the bathroom. The bathroom? There's a bed right there at center stage, or -- if Stanley doesn't want to defile his marriage bed -- there's the floor. I mean, what is he going to do, toss her in the tub? And no sooner has Riggins uttered (or rather thrown away -- he's almost off stage when he says it) the famous line "We've had this date with each other from the beginning" than a young man runs alongside the stage firing off a cap gun. Was this supposed to represent the shot whereby Blanche's husband killed himself or the fact that she was getting banged?
Now that I've mentioned the pajamas, I'm compelled to add that many of David Kay Mickelsen's costumes are truly ghastly. Blanche's shiny, pink, ruffled number distracted me for endless minutes. LaVoy fared better, though her sexy kimono ended in a pair of ugly, flat black shoes. Both women's slips looked like something Natalie Wood might have worn in her girlish bedroom in a '50s teen flick.
When the play was over, the entire audience -- including the chortlers -- rose to give it a standing ovation. I've no idea what they were thinking. But everyone was smiling, and no one seemed the least bit distressed by the devastating ending.
It occurred to me later that the actors may have been thrown by the laughter, and perhaps this production has worked better on other nights. Certainly it's hard to see how so much talent in the service of such an evocative play could go so wrong.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.