A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Cromer.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Soft people gotta shimmer and glow."
When madness overtakes the strong their reaction is often strong, but when it grabs ahold of the soft people there is an animal wildness to it that often far exceeds any reasonable expectation. In the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís new production of Tennessee Williamsí examination of the depth of madness in a woman who is soft but has never been perceived as such, "A Streetcar Named Desire," Blanche DuBois takes down into those depths all of the people close to her. Or she should. Thatís what the playwright wrote.
David Cromerís current production provides ample opportunity for such a disruption of reality. The Blanche he has helped create in the intimate space on the Nikos Theatre stage, is obviously fragile from her first entrance. She not merely repulsed by the atmosphere of her sisterís home, she is convulsed by it. In the five months of the play, or the more than three hours of its playing time, this Blanche has not got far to go. Her eyes, her body, her demeanor all shriek, "Fake! Phony! Liar! Cheat!" although her lines tell a slightly different story. And unlike some of her predecessors, the Williamstown Blanche may destroy some faith, but she doesnít take down her companions.
There is a major weakness in the playing of this edition of the play. Mississippi accents coached by Stephen Gabis that scream of Poí White instead of Educated White defeat the effected reality of Blanche and her sister. Blanche comes in well-dressed but spouting a trashiness that gives her facade away too soon. Her sister Stella mirrors her in movement and sound. Stellaís husband Stanley hasnít the looks or the charisma to captivate either of their imaginations and his level of violence never truly communicates either. There are too many mistakes already to make this play truly resonate with the honesty Williams demands in this play.
On the plus side the Blanche of Jessica Hecht is a much more knowing human being than many Iíve seen. This one really sees Stanley Kowalski for who and what he is and when she calls a spade a spade we can see she has honestly assessed the man and knows whereof she speaks. Hecht manages to make Blanche into a middle-aged frump when we should see Blanche as she sees herself, at least for a while. We never have the chance to imagine the beauty she finds within her soul. She has taken the plain Jane road for her Blanche and that risk doesnít pay off too well.
Ana Reeder has taken sister Stella, "Stella for Star" in the opposite direction, her beaten-down ramshackle housewife never believable as the younger sister of the Belle Reve plantation. It is impossible to imagine her as elegantly attractive; she has taken too easily to the lower middle class lifestyle. Reeder and Hecht both have good moments together but they never seem to jell as sisters or friends.
Sam Rockwell is both powerful and violent but there is no underlying dream of a man who thinks that loveís demands must be met. He has no charm, no style, no appeal, really. He gives us the common man without even a hint of the uncommon. I could see no reason for Stella to be compelled to be with him. I could find no reason for Blanche to defy him and no safe haven for his child left alone with him. Rockwellís Stanley will undoubtedly batter the baby to death one day.
Mitch, Stanleyís friend and Blancheís part-time suitor, is played without pity by Daniel Stewart Sherman. A native New Orleans man, Mitch in this show is not so much a moral man defeated by lies as a vulgar man whose baser nature is set off by truths. Mitch is a man who admires truth, asks for it, but here he is a man who cannot bear the message or the messenger or the subject of his conjecture. We feel no sympathy for him at all as he plunges from mistake to mistake.
Michael Bradley Cohen does all right as the young collector who is almost seduced by a drunken, distraught Blanche and he might have pulled of his scene if Blanche had been even the slightest bit seductive. Jennifer Engstrom is a fine Eunice. Kirby Ward is wasted as the doctor who cannot speak above a hush and is a vaguely drawn figure on this stage.
The stage is open on three sides and the audience is ranged upstage and in its traditional position. I recommend that you ask for a stage seat, stage left only if you want to see the play as the sightlines for both the normal audience and the stage right seats come complete with blocked viewing. This show requires many things and the play cannot be done without them and the set designed by Collette Pollard is an interesting, if cluttered, one for the Nikos Stage and it makes it hard to see the play (my seat - SC6 - was almost perfect, but not many others, apparently, were).
It is a hard set to light and Heather Gilbert does a remarkably good job considering the obstacles. Still playing an entire scene with a single candle robs the audience of reactions and nuances that are so important in this Williams play in which madness grows slowly and steadily and you want to see the transitions. Janice Pytelís costumes are perfect for the characters and for the year of 1947, but somehow they donít always work. I think some makeup on Blanche would have been appropriate, but Hecht remained blank-faced most of the time.
It is a tribute to the playwright that with so much working against the success of this production, one where good talent seems to have been squandered on directorís concept, that the famous final scene in which Blanche DuBois lives up to her name and is escorted away by a kind stranger is a moving, almost riveting, one. Itís a long wait for something that touches the heart but worthwhile when it happens. You just have to provide the fortitude to experience one wrong decision after another for that two-hankie payoff.
A Streetcar Named Desire plays at the Nikos Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival at the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College in Williamstown, MA through July 3. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-597-3400 or on line at www.wtfestival.org.