Quick: what’s the first thing you think of when you hear the title of this play? I’m willing to bet it’s the iconic (and much parodied) moment when Stanley starts yelling “Stella! Stella!”
And since you’re the kind of person who would be reading this blog, I’m also ready to give odds that in your mind’s ear you’re hearing Marlon Brando doing the yelling. In fact, such is the iconicity of Brando’s interpretation of the role, that it’s likely even people who’ve never seen the film version of the play in full (not you, of course, dear reader) will almost instantly make that association, from having seen trailers or spoofs. And those who have seen the film – especially those, like you and me, theater buffs that we are, who’ve seen it multiple times – will also be unable to think of Streetcar and not conjure Vivien Leigh’s complex portrait of the desperate (and desperately manipulative) Blanche DuBois.
All this is to begin my thoughts on barebones production of A Streetcar Named Desire by acknowledging the 800-pound gorilla in the room. That’s not to say that barebones director Melissa Martin’s interpretation of the play necessarily invites such comparisons, only that it’s nearly impossible to assess any production of Streetcar without thinking about how it echoes, and is haunted by, its legendary predecessor. For unless a director decides to impose a radical “concept” on the play (which is, thankfully, not the case here), there’s not a lot of wiggle room to find novel ways to stage many of Tennessee Williams’s scenes, and in fact some of the more notorious moments (for example, when Stella comes down to Stanley after he’s hit her, and he buries his face in her belly) are explicitly spelled out in Williams’s stage directions.
Nonetheless, even though there aren’t many innovations in the staging here, there is much that is fresh and stimulating in barebones production’s interpretation of the play, partly due to the intelligence and insight of its leading actors, and partly due to the cultural moment in which we now live. Let me start with that second thought first. The play’s central male character viciously beats his wife, and she comes back to him. I can’t tell you what audiences in 1947 might have thought or understood about that; I wasn’t there. But in 2014, with a spate of recent high profile domestic violence incidents, there’s enough cultural awareness to recognize Stella’s enthrallment to Stanley as a symptom of abuse, and not (merely) as a response to his sexual charisma. Blanche’s dismay at Stella’s return to Stanley, then, comes across not so much as a prudish uptightness (as it tends to in the film) as a legitimate distress over her sister’s situation. This new light is cast on the play mainly by our shift in perspective – there’s nothing I can point to on stage that specifically calls attention to our current thinking about domestic abuse, other than perhaps the fact that Patrick Jordan’s Stanley seems less to feel remorse over having hurt his wife than to feel frantic over the possible loss of his prized possession. But one thing the production does do, in relation to contemporary understandings of gender violence, is complicate the moment in which Stanley takes Blanche (Tami Dixon) by force in the penultimate scene. In a very modern twist on what constitutes rape, Blanche seems, for a moment, to respond to his overture, but it’s clear from her subsequent struggle that he does not have her positive consent. That she is then not believed when she later tells Stella (Jenna C. Johnson) what Stanley has done – and is silenced by being shunted off to an insane asylum – only allows the play’s ending to shine an even brighter light on the historical sedimentation of rape culture.
Moreover, the way our current cultural moment frames this play’s depiction of gender violence made me realize how much Williams’s play stands as an exploration of the limits and contours of masculinity (despite the fact that here, as always, the central figure of interest is Blanche. I’ll get to her in a bit, I promise!). Williams exposes, on the one hand – in Stanley, in particular – the extent to which normative, “successful” masculinity seems predicated on cleaving off anything associated with femininity, so that all that’s left is the action-oriented, aggressive, anger-fueled “animal” that so disgusts the (putatively) refined and sensitive Blanche. But as brutish as he may be, Stanley’s perfection of alpha male behavior works to his advantage in Williams’s bipolar gender world: even the other men in the play defer to him and scramble to smooth his ruffled feathers. (It’s as if Williams was as fascinated, and puzzled, by the appeal and charisma of the alpha male as most women are.) Jordan plays this up: there’s not much of a soft side to his Stanley, and even when he embraces Stella it feels a bit menacing and possessive. But the play also offers alternative models of masculine identity, in the examples of Blanche’s first husband (the homosexual Alan) and Mitch (sensitively played by Jeff Carpenter), her suitor, whose status as a caretaker for a dying mother at home aligns him with traditionally “feminine” qualities like nurturing. In his capacity for empathy and caring, Mitch actually has more to offer a woman than the emotionally illiterate Stanley, yet in the end, it’s Stanley who is the reproductive winner. Carpenter’s interpretation of Mitch underscores the extent to which Mitch is fueled by a quiet desperation that matches, if not exceeds, Blanche’s more overt neediness. At play’s end, we may feel more for Mitch’s loss than for Stella’s (or Blanche’s); such is the powerful and confused yearning Carpenter infuses into the role.
As Blanche, Dixon accomplishes the difficult but necessary feat of winning our empathy, if not our approval. On the page, Blanche can come off as self-serving and narcissistic; when I teach this play in class, students often read Blanche as a crazy emotional terrorist who does nothing but lie and manipulate to get her way. What they miss is what a really good actress can bring to the role, that is, the embodiment and internalization of all the past wounds and traumas that generate and justify her (self-) deceptions. Dixon’s Blanche is just vulnerable enough to make us feel her pain, and able to slip the mask on and off easily enough to make us pity her groundlessness; while we recognize what a toxic person she is, we can’t really hate her for it. When I read the play, I don’t want Blanche to win the battle; it’s a credit to Dixon’s terrific, nuanced performance in the role that here, a small part of me kind of hoped Blanche might win.
Having spent more time than I budgeted to write these thoughts, I have to wrap this post up, but before I do, I need to mention one last, tremendously successful aspect of the show: the music. Joe Gruschecky and John Gresh provide live musical accompaniment (on guitar and piano) in a corner of the stage decked out like the kind of bar you might imagine Stanley hanging out in with his poker buddies. Not only is the music fabulous in and of itself, it is also extremely effective in transporting us into the sonic world of New Orleans, and it beautifully serves Williams’s script (which, if I remember correctly, calls for us to hear the sounds of music from a local bar wafting through the night from time to time).