A Streetcar Named Desire

At the Charles Playhouse through November 5

A Streetcar Named Desire may not be Tennessee Williams' most perverse play (Garden District concentrates on such themes as sadism and homosexuality with greater relish), but I find it his most disturbing and powerful one. It doesn't rely on gimmicks, SYMBOLS like venus flytraps and half eaten baby turtles for its impact, but rather on the conflict which causes the slow psychological disintegration of its heroine, Blanche DuBois. The tension is inherent in the play's dramatic situation, in the human relationships it explores, and that tension should rise slowly from the very first scene to the play's piercing climax.

When Blanche first enters the Kowalskis' New Orleans slum dwelling, she has already watched her parents slowly die; she has married a boy who turned out to be a homosexual, and a suicidal one at that; she has tried to fight death with what she thinks to be its antithesis, love; and she has loved just about every available male in the town of Laurel. An affair with a seventeen-year-old boy caused her expulsion from the town and her trip to New Orleans to visit her sister and brother-in-law, the Kowalskis. After her first meeting with Stanley, her imaginery world of gentility (a world like that of the mother in The Glass Menagerie) begins to crumble, because of his animal attraction for her, one they both recognize but never mention, and because of his need to expose the truth about her.

Such a play requires a sympathetic production. Every step in Blanche DuBois' self-destruction must be carefully prepared for; the audience must be made to understand, to feel, the process of decay at work. Michael Murray's production at the Charles Playhouse seemed not so much misdirected as undirected, and at the end of the play, when Blanche makes her final retreat out of the real world into the grotesquely refined world of her imagination, the spectator has no sense of the inexorability of her breakdown, no feeling that this is the way it had to be, for Blanche and for the civilization she represents.

I do not condemn the actors, who struck me as a competent lot. Joan DeWeese, as Blanche, acted the final mad scene with aloof dignity. It is Mr. Murray's fault, I think, that she never revealed her sensuality, her nymphomaniacal craving after Stanley Kowalski. Mitch Ryan, as Kowalski, was splendidly grubby, violent, and stupid, but he too never quite seemed the sexually potent animal he should have been. His movements around the stage were sometimes those of a normal human being, sometimes those of an ape, and sometimes those of a wind-up toy on the blink. Mrs. Kowalski, Blanche's sister, was fetchingly played by Jo Ann Le Compte, whose love scene with Stanley was the most touching moment of the evening.

Robert G. Skinner designed the sets, no easy chore when the play, set in the Kowalskis' two-room apartment, requires a claustrophobic atmosphere, while the stage is open to the audience on three sides. The sets were properly dingy, but never managed to show up properly the incongruity between their dinginess and the pseudo-gentility of Blanche's efforts at redecoration. Ruth Branad's costumes were splendid, even down to Stanley's bright red pajamas.

A few of the play's fine moments--funny, poignant, or pathetic--are captured, but they are few, and there is none of the slowly raging conflict that made Kazan's movie version of the play a classic.