Streetcar Rolls Again
It's hard to watch A Streetcar Named Desire as if you'd never seen it before and had harbored no mental image of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, had never heard anyone say, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," had never shuddered with mingled repulsion and fascination as Stanley roars for his wife: "Stella-a-a! Stella-a-a!"
It will be interesting to see how literary history judges Tennessee Williams. His plays were forged during a very specific period, a time when America was at its most repressed and repressive. They communicate the rage, despair and yearning of outsiders -- people in the shadows who are too fragile and too different to survive. Williams creates hot, self-enclosed worlds seething with anger and lust, worlds in which the strong perpetrate atrocities, the weak struggle for breath, and desire swings into violence in an instant. By some happy alignment of the planets, Williams wrote in the late 1940s and through the '50s, at the same time Lee Strasberg was nurturing some extraordinary talents at his Actors Studio. Among those he encouraged to search out and set loose the dark currents in their own souls were Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Brando, in particular, embodied Williams's characters with such charm, intelligence, emotional intensity and animal power that certain roles are fused inextricably in our minds with his youthful persona.
In Streetcar, Blanche Dubois, a fading Southern belle haunted by the memory of a dead husband and destroyed both by her own hyper-eroticism and her futile struggles to hold onto the family estate, arrives at the junked-out New Orleans apartment where her sister, Stella, lives with her husband, Stanley Kowalski. Kowalski embodies the brute physicality Williams clearly associates with the working class. Like a mindless force of nature -- and despite his wife's attempts to protect her sister -- Stanley destroys Blanche.
Nomad Theatre shows commendable courage and ambition by taking on Streetcar, and the company has mounted a solid production that communicates the text and flavor of the play. What's lacking, it seems to me, is poetic fire.
In the 1951 film, Vivien Leigh was a mad, otherworldly Blanche, a white moth fluttering helplessly round a flame. But Williams's script (sections of which were cut for the film) gives Blanche a far more checkered background. As played by Deborah Curtis, Blanche half invites the sexual attentions of her brother-in-law. She also seems more solid and less vulnerable than in other interpretations, which makes Stanley's anger at her spoiled behavior -- soaking for hours in the bath, insisting that Stella wait on her, flirting, telling self-aggrandizing lies -- somewhat understandable. Curtis's is a valid interpretation, but when you're not charmed by Blanche, or pitying her, you're also less emotionally absorbed in the play. Curtis does have one deeply touching scene. It occurs when a young man (Gregory Adams) comes to the door to collect for the newspaper, and Blanche vacillates between seducing him and letting him go. Adams plays his small role with beautiful restraint, and Curtis responds with longing and a heartbreaking gentleness.
Eric C. Dente has loads of talent. He's expressive, has a fine voice and draws focus effortlessly. As Stanley, he projects a creepiness that's very effective. There are some terrific moments just before he rapes Blanche when he plays with her lazily, almost good-humoredly, even poking her once or twice like a kid. Still, the working-class mannerisms and accent aren't entirely convincing, and the portrayal as a whole needs more edge. Dente takes a riskier approach to Stanley's table manners than he does to his sexual aggression.
Lisa Rosenhagen is a lithe, appealing Stella, and Stuart O'Sheen turns in a strong performance as Mitch. Shelley McMillion Burl is interesting as neighbor Eunice, though once or twice she overdoes things a little. So does director Peter Anthony, who sometimes lets the moaning jazz music or the background voices get too intrusive. The set is ugly, but not evocatively so, and someone needs to take the costumes in hand. The dress Blanche wears on her date with Mitch is unflattering, and her wig is an almost constant distraction.
These days, some aspects of Streetcar seem dated -- particularly the way Stanley's violence seems to rouse Stella's lust. But the tortured, larger-than-life characters and the shifting relationships among them continue to electrify.
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