Theatre New Brunswick
Producing Tennessee Williams' masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, poses real challenges for a director and a company. One of those challenges is named Marlon Brando. He created the role of Stanley Kowalski, and for many of us, Brando's brooding Stanley, bellowing "Stella!" at the wife who's just run out on him, has become one of the central images of modern theatre. Brando has tended to make us forget that the play is not mainly about the lower-class, hard-drinking, poker-playing hunk. The real centre of the play is Blanche DuBois, a fading symbol of vanishing southern elegance, who comes into Stanley's flat and his life having just, as she says, stepped off a streetcar with the peculiar New Orleans street name "Desire."
Many think Blanche is one of the greatest, and most challenging, roles for an actress in mid-twentieth century drama. Her character is complex, ambiguous and easy to exaggerate.
In the first few scenes of the play, for instance, Williams shows us what might well be four different people, all named Blanche DuBois.
The person who arrives at the Kowalski's flat to visit her sister is a delicate Southern Belle, genteelly appalled at the neighbourhood and the neighbours. A moment later we meet a dominant older sister, ordering poor Stella around, assessing her life, her clothes, and her hairdo. Then she appears as a self-possessed, mature woman, confronting Stanley's suspicions about her, facing him down and even flirting with him. And then suddenly she's having a sensitive, warm conversation with Stanley's buddy Mitch, making us feel that perhaps there's hope for the two of them to establish a genuine relationship.
The challenge for an actress is to make us believe that all these women -- and all the other facets of Blanche we meet in the play -- are the same person. It is a pleasure to report that, in Seana McKenna, Theatre New Brunswick has found an actress capable of making us care about Blanche without resorting to melodrama or hysterics.
McKenna not only makes us believe in Blanche, but believe that we're the only people who understand Blanche and see how what she is, and has been, has made it impossible for her to escape from the trap she's gotten herself into -- too old to be effortlessly attractive to men, too broke to get along without them, too fragile to survive in a world dominated by Stanleys and the new American vision of tough, urban realism.
McKenna does this with her body and with silences as much as with her voice. The way she enters the Kowalski flat for the first time, for instance, tells us everything we need to know about how she feels about the place. The way she handles silences in the delicate courtship scenes with Mitch allows us to feel the awkwardness, the tentativeness in their relationship, and something of her own calculation about how to hook this man.
Her performance is a triumph. Like almost everything else about the TNB production, it succeeds by walking a narrow tightrope. The play balances exaggerated melodrama and irony, never allowing us to feel an emotion about a character or an act without seeing how others feel differently, how other ways of looking at it are possible. As Blanche explains to her sister, after Stanley's beaten her up, what a "subhuman" he is, we watch him, in the next room, listening, and can see what hearing this does to him. As she explains her disastrous discovery that her young husband was a homosexual, we feel sympathy for her, and at the same time know she's telling the story in a bid for Mitch's sympathy. This doubleness of feeling is typical of the play. It is part of what allows this production to rivet our attention for a full three hours.
Among the more notable contributors to this it are Miles Potter, whose hesitant, clumsy Mitch is a wonderful foil to Blanche's attempts to play the unspoiled plantation girl, and Stuart Hughes, whose Stanley is physically magnetic and thoughtfully constructed. Like the role of Blanche, that of Stanley consists of a series of vignettes which the actor, and we, must put together into a believable character. There's the Stanley who explodes into violence after a drunken evening of poker, and the one who confronts Blanche about "The Napoleonic Code" and what's happened to the DuBois family plantation, and the one who stands slumped and malignant while Blanche explains to his wife what an animal he is. If Stuart Hughes doesn't quite convince us that this Stanley is capable of thinking of the Napoleonic Code, he certainly does convince us that he's both primitively violent and irresistibly attractive to his wife.
Much else about the large, ambitious production is to be commended. No one in the cast, from Larissa Lapchinksi's vulnerable, innocent Stella to Carroll Godsman's bit role as the nurse from the mental institution, fails to contribute to the impact. The set is a powerful evocation of the lower-class claustrophobia of Williams' New Orleans, the sound of the train going by just behind the back wall is perfect, transitions from scene to scene are managed in a way which keeps us aware of the artifice without distracting us, and Michael Shamata's direction and pacing holds our attention without a respite.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a play which has not only aged well, but has improved with age. Its concerns have become more resonant with the passage of four decades, and this production does them justice. If you wondered, after seeing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year, why Tennessee Williams is often called the best American playwright of the century, seeing this production may convince you that's not a silly thing to say.