A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"I don’t want realism. I want—magic!"
Blanche DuBois yearns for that elusive element in life that makes romance possible, love feasible and respect mandatory. Sadly her life in the years leading up to the events in Tennessee Williams’ play "A Streetcar Named Desire" take her down a path not fated to land her safely in any of those spots she so badly wants and needs. Blanche has had it with realism; she prefers lies to reality; she demands soft lighting, background music, poetry when all that is offered to her is the glare of the world around her, a blues singer whose words are often bitter and a prosaic existence where even her own poetry fails to impress.
Her tragedy is on stage for the moment at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She has turned her back on Laurel, Mississippi and headed for New Orleans where her sister Stella, and Stella’s husband Stanley, live in a two room apartment in the Latin Quarter. Surrounded by factory workers, jazz musicians, immigrants and the usual street people, Blanche is immediately uncomfortable and that lack of familiarity along with the complications that travel with Blanche provide a sure road to madness.
The Kowalskis, Stanley and Stella, live in a district called Elysian Fields and it is there, on a cot in the kitchen, that Blanche takes up temporary residence. In Greek Mythology Elysian Fields is defined as the abode of the blessed after death. In Williams’ version of the place, reached by taking a streetcar named Desire and transferring to one named Cemetery, no one is dead as yet, but the living aren’t doing too good a job of it and they don’t seem to be all that blessed. Stella is pregnant and doesn’t want to tell her sister; she has also kept Blanche’s arrival a secret from Stanley. This is one insecure woman. Stanley is incapable of living without his woman, insecure in her love and a threat to Blanche. Blanche is on anything but level footing in the world having lost her home, her job, and even her self-respect. No, I don’t think any of them are particularly blessed.
As characters, however, they are somewhat blessed in the casting for this production. Stella, presumed to be about 28, is played by Kim Stauffer who looks the part. Her sister, Blanche, presumed to be a few years older is played by Marin Mazzie. Her age is never revealed but in this casting there may well have been two or three DuBois siblings born between these two women. Stanley, a strongly brutish fellow is recently out of the army (world war II having ended just two years earlier) and is played by Christopher Innvar. All three have qualities that work well for their roles.
Nevertheless they did not convince me always of their relationships. The two women, in particular, didn’t quite jell into sisters. There is a modest similarity in their appearance which helps, but somehow their rhythms together never felt quite right to me. Mazzie’s Blanche is stronger than the script would have us believe she is in actuality. Her long stride and her too solid form of flirtation felt at odds with her sister's bravura expressions of love and lust. It is almost as though they were directed to be one person rather than two individuals. In those few moments when the two bond and protect one another, there was less cohesion than there was posed embraces. I did not feel that sense of family so necessary in those moments in the play and this altered the ending for me as well. In that scene, Stella’s anxiety and remorse didn’t mix well, there being less of the former and more of the latter than seemed right.
Innvar’s Stanley had all of the violence and anger, as well as most of the jealousy he should feel when his wife seems to take her sister’s side He had some of the pleasantry required, but the charm that makes Stella so loyal and attracts Blanche initially wasn’t really there. Innvar’s performance was fine, there just wasn’t the touch of charisma there needs to be for this part to be really understood by an audience. Stanley should attract us all at times, but Innvar’s Stan was resolutely mean, confused by his emotions, and as insecure as Blanche is at times. She calls him an animal and he does seem more animal-like than human in his actions. However, his instincts don’t pose the obvious threat to Stella that they should, nor to Blanche who cowers on cue, but often makes us wonder just why.
Stauffer plays well with the others, but doesn’t really seem to be inside of Stella. She uses her physical capabilities to replace the emotional intensity we need to see and experience for ourselves. It is a loss to the role and the play for her not to be able to respond to the attractiveness in her Stanley, but as he isn’t presenting it to her to play off that would be hard. Innvar rarely smiles at her. He holds her close but there is no body language between them that sets off sparks.
Mazzie also seems a bit too cut off from the others around her. She focuses away from them far too much. She is at her best in her scenes with Mitch, Stanley’s army buddy and friend who begins to fall under Blanche’s spell. As played by Kevin Carolan, Mitch is a warm soul, a charming fellow who can tolerate Stanley’s coarseness as long as it doesn’t offend anyone else in the room. Carolan looks at Mazzie with a dozen different expressions on his face from amusement to admiration to concern. Of the principal quartet of players he was the only one who seemed to be completely at home in his role.
Blanche, in Mazzie’s hands, is more neurotic than insecure. She seems destined for madness from the beginning and never seemed to find Stanley even understandably attractive, which is a missed cue that needs to be in place for the action in Scene Ten (or Act III, Scene Four) to make any sense. Though she wants to resist Stanley, hates him for trying to fool with her, she gives in and as played by Mazzie and Innvar, it is too easy a job for both of them. That alters our understanding of the final scene in which her madness is securely taking hold of her.
Whatever may be wrong with this production, and it is all small things that make the difference in a play as subtle and sublime as this one, the final scene has a powerful punch that left not a dry eye in the theater, including mine. It is tempting to wonder if this scene was given more rehearsal time than any other, for it is the trickiest one even if it is the most honest and believable scene.
If there are twelve rings in Hell, that absolute opposite of Elysian Fields, than the eleven scenes of this play take us from the border town periphery to very near the center. That trip needs to be experienced through Blanche’s descent into a netherworld she has held the key to for some time. Those transitions aren’t always in place, and I’m not sure that there is much to be done even by a director as talented as Julianne Boyd has proven herself to be over the years. Williams has left holes in his script where believability becomes difficult: Blanche’s story is revealed, layer by layer, scene by scene, but we learn very little about Stella’s life in the ten years the sisters have been apart and we never learn much about Stanley’s background, foreground or any ground. Again, we know more about Mitch than we do about Stan.
I loved Brian Prather’s set and Elizabeth Flauto’s costumes. Scott Pinkney has provided lighting effects that generally worked and Michael Burnet has done a decent job with the fight and violence scenes. Chavez Ravine is lovely as the blues singer and oddly overly loud as the Mexican Woman whose cry of flowers for the dead overwhelms Mazzie’s reaction rather than keying it. Thom Rivera plays musical instruments effectively getting the jazz into its Capitol. Jeff Kent is fine as the Doctor and Miles Hutton Jacoby is very sweet as the young collector who is almost seduced by Blanche. Jennifer Regan is excellent as Eunice.
It is a fascinating 2 hours and 52 minutes of theater, even with unfortunate scene changes in too much stage light. There are many things wrong with the production and yet so many things right that on balance I would say this is something not to be missed. However, don’t refresh your memory with a read-through of the play before you see it, as I did. The frustrations could get out of hand and you might end up more like Blanche than you’d like. Better to come fresh and without expectations based on knowledge.
Like Blanche DuBois, enter a strange world and find what solace you can in knowing that your world isn’t hers. You’ll leave the theater so much better for the tears you shed that she wills from you. They belong to her, after all, and she knows it.
Kim Stauffer on Brian Prather's set, lit by Scott Pinkney; photo: Kevin Sprague
Marin Mazzie; photo: Kevin Sprague
Christopher Innvar and Kim Stauffer; photo: Keven Sprague
A Streetcar Named Desire plays at Barrington Stage Company’s mainstage theater at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA through August 29. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go to their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.