A Streetcar Named Desire
directed by George Reyes
at the Aggasiz Theater
through April 30
The Agassiz production of A Streetcar Named Desire bravely seeks to resurrect Tenessee Williams' play from its status as a silver screen sacred cow. The production is buoyed by a strong cast and well-wrought set, but lacks the direction to challenge Elia Kazan's 1951 interpretation or reclaim it for a modern audience.
Set in 1920s New Orleans, Williams' play is a work of psychological warfare. When the genteel Blanche Dubois mysteriously insinuates herself into the lives of her younger sister, Stella, and Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, she precipitates her own fall, begun twenty years earlier on the family plantation. Part of the difficulty of the play lies in the sense that everything following the inital fall from glory is simply a decades long after-shock.
Esme Howard is a fetching Blanche, lithe and ethereal to Jordanna Brodsky's more earthy, sensual Stella. Their slight awkwardness onstage works well in the first act as the two sisters attempt to reestablish the patterns of their relationship while skirting Stanley's animal force.
Howard has good comic instincts, as when she wickedly tells a bashful young man collecting for the paper (Charles B. Grandy), "I'd like to keep you, but I've got to be good, and keep my hands off little children." And Brodsky is winningly earnest. She and Nick Gordon's Stanley have no trouble expressing the young couple's physical attraction to each other.
Gordon is as good a Stanley as could be found on a college stage, and occassionally better. Half-naked, he snarls and grunts like the ape Blanche terms him, while never losing his fundamental intelligence. Gordon and Howard work well together as characters who recognize that despite their divergent facades, they are disturbingly similar.
Individually, the cast is solid. But by the third act and hour, their inability to fully connect with each other makes the play's building tensions difficult to maintain. The final scene, in which Blanche struggles with the other characters to hold onto her fantasies, suffers from this tendency. We have never really believed anyone on stage is inhabiting the same world to begin with.
The cast's sense of timing is also underdeveloped. Some of Williams' most beautiful, human moments escape while others are emphasized with misguided zeal. The scenes' natural tensions are often not allowed to build. At times, a character who was whispering rememberances just moments before suddenly turns into a shrieking wall of sound, leaving the audience confused and disoriented.
It's a shame that the most genuinely tension-fraught encounters in this production are reserved for Blanche and her palid suitor, Mitch (Aaron Zelman). Zelman manages to deepen a character Williams only sketches, and turns the script's love triangle into a sturdy square.
The Kolwalskis' friends, Margaret J. Barker as Eunicel, the upstairs neighbor, and Dustin Thomason, Andres Colapinto and Zelman firmly underline the separation of Streetcar into female and male spaces which frequently clash. The aftermath is both destructive, and as Williams makes clear, part of the eternal human experience. It is, as Stella says, "One of those mysterious electric things that happen between people." The men's poker parties are so testosterone-pumped that they nearly steam the windows, while Barker's Eunice provides a maternal refuge from the consequences.
Gail Wittwer's set creates a vivid sense of the Kowalski's home with minimal fuss. On side of the stage supports a grainy two-story photograph of a typical French Quarter house, which contains the entrance to the Kowalski's apartment, as well as the neighbors' window to which Stanley offers his infamous anguished prayer, "Stella!" The other is devoted to the apartment, accurately sketched through concise set decoration and attention to period accessories. Heidi Curran's costumes (notably Blanche's, from a chic Brattle Street boutique) further locate the piece in time and place.
A Streetcar Named Desire is watchable and a definite crowd pleaser, which may be all that matters for such a classic. But one wishes that some of the obvious effort and care attached to this production had been extended towards interpreting such a vibrant script in a more thought provoking fashion.
Though Williams' play certainly raises eternal questions, repeating them in atime-honored fashion proves disappointing, especially in such a talented production.