BWW Reviews: Psych Drama Company and RI Shakespeare Company Present A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Some would say that it's the journey that's most important, rather than the destination. Others will argue that it's the destination that matters, no matter how one arrives there. In theater, plays are often concerned with a character's journey, where they have been, where they are headed, why they're going in that direction and, finally, where they actually end up. The current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, jointly presented by Psych Drama Company and Rhode Island Shakespeare Company, is an example of what happens when the journey is secondary, even ignored, and how that can diminish a play's power.
A Streetcar Named Desire is the famous Tennessee Williams play which revolves around the one-time southern belle Blanche Dubois. After suffering a series of tragic events, she arrives at the doorstep of her sister Stella, who lives in a rundown neighborhood of New Orleans. Blanche blows in like a gentle southern breeze but quickly comes into conflict with Stella's husband, Stanley. While Blanche attempts to maintain an air of refinement, Stanley is anything but refined and his brutish, animalistic and often violent ways clash with Blanche from the moment they meet until the play's perhaps inevitable climax.
This reviewer's biggest takeaway from the production was the portrayal of Blanche and how, from the very start, it removed her character's journey entirely. In this case, the very moment Blanche arrives on the scene, she is already acting like a raving lunatic, a wild-eyed madwoman about to completely lose it. Having Blanche go from zero to crazy in less than sixty seconds leaves the audience in the dust. It also does them a disservice. They are robbed of a major part of the play's central tension and drama, that which comes from watching Blanche's slow descent into madness. If, at first, Blanche is portrayed as pretending to be a pure, fragile flower, then the audience gets to watch as the petals slowly fall away, one by one, until the dark, rotting roots are exposed.
Unfortunately, in this case, the roots are exposed immediately, the petals are long gone and there's no mystery about how broken Blanche is. We don't get to watch her slowly approach the edge of sanity and fall off the cliff, because she's already gone over it and plummeted into insanity, before the play even got started. There's nowhere else for her to go, she never really gets better or worse, it's all just the same. She starts out crazy and ends crazy, with little change in between, and the climax is mostly anti-climactic. At best, this can make Blanche's story frustrating and at worst, downright boring. It's up to each audience member to decide on their own which one they have experienced.
Also likely to split audience members is the acting by Wendy Lippe in the role of Blanche. To her credit, she makes a big choice and seriously commits to it, and that should be applauded. Some will find it a brilliant performance that works perfectly while others will find it a less-than-brilliant performance that, in the end, diminishes the character and story. I find myself in the latter group.
Lippe is a clinical psychologist and the Producing Artistic Director of Psych Drama Company, whose mission is "to promote reflection and psychological insight through the mechanism of live theatre." In this case, though, the focus on psychology may be to the detriment of the character and the story that Tennessee Williams wrote. What I mean is, Lippe seems so concerned with playing the psychology, the state of being, of Blanche, that she forgets to make Blanche a real, believable human being.
Playing a state of being is always problematic for an actor. Those moments when an actor simply says, "I'm being depressed" or "I'm being greedy" or "I'm being promiscuous" seldom work on stage. Acting must be active and it must be about playing an action, one which is motivated by something, an objective, desire, need or goal. Lippe proves this herself during one excellent scene between her and Jon Brandl as Mitch, Stanley's friend with whom Blanche hopes to start a romance. During the scene, Lippe seems to finally be playing the action, the objective-or-goal-driven action, rather than just playing a state of being. It really works but those kinds of moments are few and far between. Most of her moments on stage are so unmotivated and over the top they border on parody or satire, rather than believability. There are many things that just don't make sense or seem to have no reason or motivation. Her constant shaking, twitching and other mannerisms are distracting and unnecessary, they don't help deepen the character or tell the story. She seems to have real acting talent but it appears to take a backseat to hammering the audience over the head with her character's psychological state.
Making Lippe's performance stand out even more are the wonderfully nuanced and sometimes brilliant performances of her cast-mates. While Blanche's character lacks any subtlety whatsoever, both Stanley and Stella are given subtle, wonderful moments by Stephen Sacchetti and Margaret Howe, respectively.
Sacchietti is an unexpectedly perfect Stanley and it's only unexpected because he doesn't, at first, look the part. He's kind of lean and wiry and rather clean-cut, almost all-American looking. But, behind his clean-cut good looks and charming smile, there is something simmering and boiling. Something violent and almost sinister. When he lashes out at Stella and Blanche, it's believable and real, which is a credit to his acting talent. As Stella, Howe also presents a real and believable woman who is caught up in circumstances she cannot control. In a sense she's trapped between two worlds and torn apart by them, a situation which Howe plays perfectly. Underneath her sweet, down to earth exterior, Howe's Stella has her own fiery emotions which occasionally flash across Stella's eyes.
The aforementioned Jon Brandl is also excellent as Mitch. While he does have an element of Stanley's rough, potentially violent manliness, he cloaks it in a sweet, loving and kind exterior. The rest of the ensemble, as various friends and neighbors, are also quite good in minor roles. What the entire ensemble has is great chemistry and that goes a long way towards making the play more palatable. Howe and Lippe have a wonderful sisterly connection as Stella and Blanche. Lippe and Brandl also have excellent chemistry together as Blanche and Mitch. As Stanley, Stacchietti has great onstage chemistry with everyone. It's interesting that even though the company presenting the show focuses on psychology, it's chemistry that may save the day in the end.
Then again, there's so much more to a character onstage than their psychology. When fully crafted by a playwright and brought to life by an actor, they are fully fleshed out human beings, made up of many aspects. And their psychology should come out naturally, organically, through their actions, motivations, hopes, desires and needs, and what they do to achieve those things. Otherwise, an audience gets three hours of an actor or actress basically running around screaming "I'm being crazy! See! I'm crazy!" and that's really not much fun for anyone to watch.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through February 23rd at the Courthouse Center for the Arts, 3481 Kingstown Road, West Kingston. For tickets, please visit www.brownpapertickets.com, or call 401-996-2376.