BWW Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Gamut
Tennessee Williams gave birth to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE seventy years ago, in 1947, and it still looks great, not just for its age, but in general. It's rooted in its place and time, it doesn't work well in modern dress, but while it's period, it's not at all dated. As with Shakespeare's best works, Williams deals with universal themes and with remarkable language; though its English feels colloquial, Williams always managed to polish the vernacular into gems. It's also a show that couldn't be written today, not because of censorship but because our minds recognize the problems in it, but shift to different solutions. Stella would be in a domestic violence shelter and a job training program. Stanley would be in anger management and a men's group therapy session. Blanche would be in rehab, Mitch would be in job re-training, and the baby would be in foster care. We certainly have difficulty perceiving that a single woman in her thirties is completely washed up and a lost cause.
Whether it's closer to the later WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf or the far earlier KING LEAR - and STREETCAR shares much with both of them - the underlying tale involves fictions, madness, and family drama. Blanche is a younger Lear, driven not from sanity to madness but arriving living in a world of fiction and increasingly unable to differentiate between the real truth, the tale as she wants it to be known, and hallucination. Stanley Kowalski, played by Marlon Brando both in the original Broadway production and on film, is the antagonist - whether George of Virginia Woolf or Edmund in LEAR is a close call.
While Elia Kazan, who directed the Broadway version, thought Stanley the central character (possibly because he was directing Marlon Brando), Williams himself and directors since Kazan have placed the focus properly on Blanche and her psychic deterioration. Is Stanley a truth-teller or simply evil and grasping? Whichever he is, he's also violent to women, likely a rapist (that point is left to the audience's conclusion), and not so much crude, as Blanche considers him, as sinister.
At Gamut Theatre, it's under the care and nurturing of Clark Nicholson as director, with Amber Mann as the mentally fragile Blanche DuBois, Sean Adams as Stanley, and Michelle Kay Smith as the conflicted Stella, Blanche's sister and Stanley's wife.
Mann's Blanche floats across the stage like an injured butterfly, and while she may not sting like a bee, she has her Southern belle bitch mode on full steam. She doesn't like Stanley, thinks Stella has fallen from social grace, and expects to be served, all despite her having lost everything herself. How far she's lost her reputation may be debatable, as we hear about her less than virtuous existence over the past few years from the intensely unlikable Stanley, who's been seeking a way to get back at her. But Mann manages to keep Blanche's world of illusion alive for the audience, and the truth of her likely checkered existence in doubt. Blanche is a heavy character in search of a light hand, and Mann has that.
Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, is a heavyweight in all things. He's as subtle as a sledgehammer, greedy, manipulative; he and Blanche are opposing sides of the same id, and cannot long exist in the same orbit without one destroying the other. But Kowalski adds the touch of also being what we now call an abusive sexist creep, which Blanche would simply call "ungentlemanly." To her credit, Blanche does see Stanley for what he is, which her sister, married to him and abused by him, can't; the one thing she perceives without fantasy, lies, or hallucination, as total truth, is that he destroys women. He has an undercurrent of delighting in having dragged Stella down from plantation owner's daughter to working poor, and making her live with his baggage. Sean Adams thankfully isn't Brando, isn't tugging to be the focus, but he's capable of making the stage become smaller when he chases after Stella, and again when he stalks Blanche in the bedroom. Adams brings clarity to Stanley's atavistic impulses and actions, his greed, violence, and lust. His Stanley isn't pleasant, but he's comprehensible, imbued with the feeling that he's someone we know.
In many ways Stella is the most complex character; she could have Blanche's airs and graces, and it's suggested she once did, but she left home and left Blanche with the baggage there, for which Blanche hasn't forgiven her. She's a classic victim of domestic abuse, both physical and verbal, and still defending the husband she won't leave. She's also the buffer and the mediator between her rapidly decompensating sister and her provocateur husband. W. May see her far differently than Williams intended, however, since a modern enlightened audience member probably feels the need to hand her the phone number for the local women's shelter rather than see her as precariously placed between Blanche and Stanley. Smith plays on that delicate balance, showing genuine glimpses of Stella's love for Stanley, not just a fear of her husband.
Yet for all of Blanche's fragility and Stanley's coarseness, there's a deep connection between them that fuels their mutual disdain; they're both manipulators, though Blanche's powers are waning. Each of them recognizes, without spelling it out, that they're both trying to control the people around them, who are now the same people. There's no grudging respect here, though, just a monumental clash of wills.
The Gamut production has a marvelous set that is set on three levels, two to make the Kowalski apartment display both rooms, and the third the upstairs neighbor's apartment. Scenic designer Ross Carmichael and his crew have done exceptional work with the set and its decoration, as has props manager (and cast member) Zane Garcia; they've given us a properly run-down period building in the French Quarter of New Orleans to house this clash of titans.
It's a beautiful production, with an exceptional cast, and it's one Nicholson and Gamut should rightly be proud of. This one's well worth your time. At Gamut in Harrisburg through November 26. Visit gamuttheatre.org for tickets and information.