A Streetcar Named Desire
“I was sort of thrilled by it,” Stella says of her husband Stanley’s display of brutal strength on their wedding night. The same could be said of my response to the latest revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, currently in performances at the Broadhurst Theatre. Directed by Emily Mann and featuring a cast almost completely made of African-American actors, this revival of Tennessee Williams’ scorching drama about lust and the dangers of it is a tepid production, with moments of thrilling passion occurring alongside moments of puzzling apathy.
One of Williams’ most famous works, A Streetcar Named Desire follows the former schoolteacher Blanche DuBois who pays her sister and brother-in-law an unexpected visit in New Orleans. Claiming her nerves are shot and she needs a rest, Blanche, who comes from a wealthy Southern family, is delicately shocked by Stella and Stanley’s lower-class lifestyle – and Stella’s apparent comfort in living that way. Proudly presenting herself as a refined Southern woman, Blanche promptly clashes with the brutish Stanley, resulting in a outcome that has gone down in dramatic history as one of the greatest tragedies of the stage.
Sadly, this production does not do that tragedy justice, partly due to miscast principals that frequently treat the dialogue as a lighthearted sitcom or soap opera. Nicole Ari Parker brings great confidence to the role of Blanche. She looks stunning in Paul Tazewell’s costumes, and at times it is too much confidence, because she rarely registers as a woman trembling on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
As her sister, Daphne Ruben-Vega is horribly miscast in the role of Stella. For the role to be credible, one has to view Stella as Stanley’s equal, at least in bed if not in life. One has to understand why Stanley would want to marry her. And it is impossible to see that in Ruben-Vega’s performance. Styled and costumed to look like a little girl, and with her notably scratchy voice blurring or whining the majority of her lines, there is nothing sexually appealing about her. During the iconic scene when a drunken Stanley begs for his wife to forgive him and come home by screaming, “STELLA!” is much too rushed and not at all sexual, despite Underwood’s muscular arms being displayed to full advantage. Instead of reveling in her power and desire, Vega hurries down the stairs, resembling a little girl caught staying up past her bedtime. And when she tells Blanche, “There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sort of make everything else seem unimportant,” the meaning of that statement – both disturbing and beautiful – is completely lost.
As Mitch, Blanche’s last chance at marriage, Wood Harris is too young and immature to register as a man who Blanche observes as being “superior” to his fellow poker-playing buddies. Instead of being more mature, intelligent and refined than his friends, he is naive and even at times callow. When he provides the final snap of Blanche’s breaking heart, he only comes across as rude and callow rather than sadly driven to despair by a dishonest woman.
As Stanley, the force behind Blanche’s ultimate tragedy, Blair Underwood gives a performance with both brutality and charm driving it. Strong and muscular, Underwood capably depicts Stanely’s sexuality and why Blanche is both drawn to and repulsed by him. He portrays Stanley’s pride and rage as well as his appeal. Watching Underwood, one can understand why Stella married him and why Blanche is fearful of him.
What disappointed me about this production was the way it downplayed the tragedy of Blanche, both onstage and off. While A Streetcar Named Desire does have its lighthearted moments, many audience members at the performance I attended were laughing at scenes that are not intended to be funny. When Stanley flew into a drunken rage at Stella and attempts to beat her, people around me were laughing out loud. When Blanche blatantly lies about her alcoholism, they chuckled indulgently. And when she sadly, desperately, flirts with a teenage paperboy, offering the audience insight into her downfall at the school where she taught English – a scene that, when performed well, can be heartbreakingly sad – the audience seemed merely amused.
Williams’ play is filled with metaphors and symbolism, much of which is beautifully translated to the stage, with Eugene Lee’s set and Edward Pierce’s lighting depicting the heat and claustrophobia of Stella and Stanley’s home and Blanche’s fear of her false appearance being brought to light, both literally and metaphorically. After all, as she says, “a woman’s charm is fifty percent illusion.”
Despite the misfires of this production, some of the central themes of A Streetcar Named Desire still rang true, especially the entrapment that women faced at that time in America. Even though her husband beats her, Stella, who is pregnant, cannot leave Stanley. While she claims she does not want to, by the end of the production that resolve has lessened. But when forced to choose between her sister and her husband, she chooses her husband. And the scandalous secrets of Blanche’s past, which involve her being sexually promiscuous, cost her a job, a potential husband and eventually her sanity. With the debate about birth control and the war on women filling the headlines and the dialogue of the presidential campaigns, Blanche’s shame about her secrets feel all too relevant.
Close to the end of the production, Blanche, who longs for a better life but is unable to reach it, says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic.” So do I, Blanche, especially when I go to the theatre. Unfortunately, this production does not deliver that.