Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Walnut Street

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

Sixty-two years ago, The Walnut Street Theatre staged the original production of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. Then starring a young Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, the play shows the cultural clash of wills between Stanley Kowalski and Stanley’s sister-in-law Blanche Dubois as the latter invades his household and threatens the stability of his family life.

A fading Southern Belle who hides her alcoholism and creeping neurosis, Blanche (the almost too-beautiful-for-the-role Susan Riley Stevens) arrives at the home of Stella (Sandra Struthers) and Stanley (Jeffrey Coon) for a short "vacation" after being forced out of her job as an English schoolteacher for an indiscretion involving a 17-year old student. She still revels in the upbringing she received on the family’s plantation Belle Rêve (the beautiful dream), and condemns the life that her sister has forged with an uncouth, physically abusive working-class immigrant.

Stanley grates against her gentility and clashes with her from the start, initially over the loss of the family plantation (which affects his affairs as well). He doesn’t believe her stories about needing a break to "calm her nerves," and digs into her past to keep his old Army buddy Mitch (Scott Greer) from marrying her. When Stella challenges Stanley in defense of her sister, he explodes, shattering dishes, pounding walls, and punching his wife. And what Blanche doesn’t understand-that "there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that make everything else seem unimportant"- ultimately makes Stella side with her husband, even after Stanley has violently attacked Blanche as well.

So much has changed in American culture’s judgments about relationships that I almost expect a director to stage Streetcar as a period piece. The post-WWII period still bound men and women into rigidly defined gender roles, ones where Stanley asks his wife "since when do you give me orders" and Stella defends her husband’s drinking with "people have to tolerate each other’s habits." And while Coon’s performance deftly showed a man defending his household against a woman threatening to wreck his home, I think it’s hard for an audience to accept Stella not only tolerating his abuse (even being turned on by it), but siding with him after what he does to Blanche (which I won’t spoil here).

But while the play still carries well (even over three hours), director Malcolm Black’s production strips the dark pathos that emanates from sexual desire and almost turns the play into a work more resembling a comedy of sexual manners. If Black can turn a moment of the script into a joke, he has his actors play for laughs, even in Blanche’s attempted seduction of a newspaper boy (which should stand as one of her more disturbing moments, not made humorous as if the play resembled an episode of TV’s Family Guy).

Moreover, between each scene, Black fills the street with gypsies, wandering singers and prostitutes. However, showing the street life of the quarter only diminishes the tragedy of all-consuming desire, making the action seem more like a tryst in Vegas, something brought about by the location rather than the pathologies of the characters in the play. And rather than let the audience silently absorb Stanley’s final act of violence, Black uses these interludes to divert attention to a fistfight in the street.

Consequently, the fine performances suffer, even though Stevens almost redeems every element of the pathos that drives the play in her last scene with Mitch. Coon fills his performance with great energy and employs a likeable charm that temporarily (and wonderfully) masks his wild animal movements, and his moments of explosive anger turn Paul Wonsek’ sharp set into the cage of Stanley’s animal nature.

Struthers’ straightforward portrayal of Stella removes any contemporary doubts as to why she’d stay with such a man; sitting curled up in a chair the morning after Stanley consummates his abuse with a night of sex, she looks ready to purr. And while Stevens’ early playing makes Blanche’s complaints seem reasonable (even though they stem mostly from her deluded fantasy of her upbringing), when her last veneer falls, Stevens gives a heart-wrenching glimpse into a destitute woman’s unfathomable decline into madness.

In trying to "save" her sister from what she sees as an unhealthy relationship, Blanche argues a contemporary and now common sentiment: "Maybe we are a long way from being made in God’s image, but we’ve made some progress since then" and men should now practice gentility and treat their women as equal companions. But I’d argue that we’ve lost something as a society when we can no longer understand a relationship like Stella and Stanley’s, one whose passion is fueled out of a woman’s (now rarely spoken) desire to be pulled down and conquered by a stronger, powerful man.

Even 61 years later, the strong performances in this play still provide a potent reminder that while the payoff we get in animal pleasure sometimes compensates for the pain we suffer for "hanging back with the brutes," it’s still human desire that clouds our "better" judgment.

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