theater (reviews)

review: a streetcar named desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Emily Mann
Featuring Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wood Harris
Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street
April 22, 2012 — August 19, 2012
production web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 8, 2012

(L-R) Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella. Production photograph.

Tennessee Williams created in 1947 a theatricalized French Quarter New Orleans of fading gentile well-to-do-ness to add to his young body of work that began in 1945.  In Glass Menagerie this fading gentility was embodied by Amanda Wingfield, born to means on a southern estate now working for a living in War years St. Louis.  In A Streetcar Named Desire two sisters of similar estate/plantation upbringings find distinct ways out of the burdens of the thwarted expectations of their class.  Family money gone, family property sold or lost to pay for taxes or other debts, sisters married Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and “old maid” visiting Blanche (Nicole Ari Parker) love each other, respect their paths, yet show us polar opposite strategies of living life and surviving obstacles.  In this production the most astounding reaction in the moment, and now some days after the fact of experiencing my performance, is not this production has chosen to cast the principal characters with black actors. Race truly does not resonate in this story telling. What is most distinctive, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, is not the color of their skin but the content of their characters.  In this production the story is the story of the sisters and the men fade away. And one of the sisters is so severely and uniquely (mis)conceptualized that it throws the rest of the delicate storytelling balance totally off kilter.

Stella and husband blue collar Stanley (Blair Underwood) have simple quarters in section of New Orleans’ French Quarter, specified as 1952 for our production.  Stella left the pampered estate of her childhood, fading (money dribbling away) years before and married for love a muscled and straight talking man. Stanley says what is on his mind, and his mind does not have many layers.  Blanche has arrived to visit Stella in her two room apartment for what ends up being months (Stella’s pregnancy — not showing through the birth — marks the time of this play), dating more and more seriously Stanley’s work pal Mitch (Wood Harris).  We soon learn that school teacher Blanche has been fired rather than resigned, due to allegations of sexual liaisons with young men, many men, in her little town. Her visit has in reality been an escape with everything she owns in her travel trunk. When Mitch discovers all the layers of Blanche’s past, his romantic interest in her becomes untenable, and Blanche eventually loses her hopes of a new life with him.

The structure of this play and these characters is simple, stable, resonant, and key, and to stray too far from the characters as conceived destroys Williams’ creation. Faithful, strong, true, loving Stella is there for her sister and her husband, with a steamy sexual love that is palpable. Stanley is self-made, smart but uneducated, an ox with a simple idea, and eventually fed up with his long-term house guest who appears to be putting on airs. Blanche lives an illusion underscored with a reality — she is bred to her sense of gentility. Like Menagerie‘s Amanda, her current reality differs from the world in her mind, but her breeding and her manners are real. Unlike Amanda, our Blanche is more than a bit unhinged, unable as her sister Stella has been to transition from her old world into a new reality. Stella has Stanley and the French Quarter and going out for beers and poker in the living room for the guys and resents none of it. Blanche as written by Williams collapses under the sensual weight of her illusions, under her rape by Stanley, under her dependence upon the kindness of strangers.

In this production, Stella works, and Stanley is beautiful, but never inspires fear. More devastating to the overall effect, in this production, Blanche is played with one note save for the few minutes of sinking to the floor when all her illusions are gone toward the end of the play. This Blanche is funny and snide. This Blanche has visions of a woman in rags, mumbling and representing — spells and emotions and mental illness — wholly a creation of this director, that feels as though it were appended to externalize Blanche’s implosive, emotional instability.  Whether this character emerges from a production conceit or the inability of the actress to portray this instability convincingly, we’ll never know.  With shards of Savannah and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I almost expected this mute apparition to begin to call out incantations. And following that analogy a bit further, Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is beautiful and funny and totally self-assured, fully in control of her own destiny and her own joke, more like the scene-stealing Lady Chablis than anything Tennessee Williams might have had in mind for Blanche.  The devastating mis-conception for the delicate structure of this fine play is that late night rape — the events that transpire when Stella is off at the hospital having her baby leaving Blanche and Stanley alone with her finery and his resentments — feels more like siblings having a spat that an eruption of emotional violence that results in the physical and emotional brutalization of Blanche’s delicate psyche.

Without those layers, we have a beautiful set by Eugene Lee, splendid costumes by Paul Tazewell, and some terrific original music by Terence Blanchard.  We have lovely looking actors delivering lines, and a single performance as Stella by Daphne Rubin-Vega that stands up to any Stella that has come before.  Judged by the content of these characters and not the color of their skin, this production comes up short.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 14, 2012)

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