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Let me tell you why it’s impossible to stage a great production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s nothing against the Eliot Drama Society’s perfectly fine stab at the show, which ran last weekend. But just as there’s no artistic reason to mount a revival of The King and I now that Yul Brynner’s dead, there’s no reason to put on Streetcar as long as the DVD of its film remains in stock at Blockbuster.
Nearly alone among American plays, it has been immortalized on film to the point that its visuals, more than its dialogue, are ingrained in the popular imagination. You can talk about the “Stella!” scream being a cultural touchstone, but you’re never thinking about the line’s context—you’re thinking about Marlon Brando screaming with his head sandwiched between his elbows. And if you don’t think of that when you think of Streetcar, you probably think of Brando trudging around in an undershirt, or Kim Hunter absently slinking down a flight of stairs, or Vivien Leigh flinching away from a naked light bulb. And for a college, of all places, to tackle Streetcar—to take actors not long out of high school and cast them as sensual hulks and aging pedophiles—is an even trickier proposition; a few false steps and the production could start to feel like Max Fischer’s Serpico. But having all these bars against them, the Eliot crew has nevertheless managed to pull off a mostly genuine and affecting production of Tennessee Williams’ play.
Despite the program-note protestations of director David V. Kimel ’05 that the staging “aims at returning to the original text,” the Eliot interpretation of Streetcar is not entirely orthodox; almost every time that the production strays from convention, however, it’s a good thing. The play’s music, for example—that batch of motifs that Williams fetishized in his stage directions—is nearly nonexistent, but to no great detriment. And the production’s Stanley Kowalski (Simon N. Nicholas ’07) is an interesting interpretation: Williams describes Stanley as a “gaudy seed-bearer” neanderthal, but Nicholas’ Stanley is surprisingly sassy and alert. There’s never a moment here when Stanley doesn’t have the upper hand against his delicate foil, Blanche (Caroline E. Jackson ’06), and that’s an engaging way for him to play those exchanges.
Jackson’s Blanche, meanwhile, has her own novel spin. As the deranged schoolmarm on the run from a string of sexual indiscretions, Jackson doesn’t take the typical Blanche route and slide into madness during the play; rather, Jackson’s Blanche has fully snapped long before she comes on stage. All of her gestures are heedlessly artificial; all of her white lies are little eruptions of lunacy. Jackson never quite sells this Blanche; it’s a technically skilled performance, but her choices are always a little too easy—the ones that feel great during a first read-through but rightly get tossed aside during rehearsals.
Truer is the production’s Stella (Andrea D. Leahy ’05), Stanley’s wife and Blanche’s sister. She’s not Williams’ most three-dimensional character, but Leahy interprets Stella as solidly as Williams allows. She’s a Stella who bestrides Stanley’s and Blanche’s dark worlds and somehow manages to remain a good and worthy person through it all—a Stella who contains both sensuality and sensitivity, reconciling them with a spirit of endearing fraternity.
She’s even more sensitive than Mitch (Richard J. Powell ’05), Blanche’s momentary beau. Mitch is often cast as the mushball of Streetcar, but he takes on a darker cast in this production. Though Mitch is inherently a fumbling misfit, Powell takes him even further and gives him a half-lobotomized air; this is the first Streetcar I’ve seen where Mitch, not Stanley, is the one with the taciturn attitude and the undercurrent of animalism. In the text, Mitch and Blanche mesh well because they can share their personal tragedies (Mitch’s mother is terminally ill, while Blanche drove her gay husband to suicide); when they’re together in this staging, it almost feels like a couple of Marat/Sade lunatics are taking a stab at their scenes.
But that conception more or less works, as do all of the innovations advanced by Kimel and his cast during this production. They’re helped along by tech direction by Dimitris Lagias ’07, a reliable set from Anna E. Harkey ’05 (blemished only by a dorm-issue chest of drawers, out-of-place in a 1940s New Orleans slum), and costuming by Rowena H. Potts ’06 and A. Haven Thompson ’07. I wouldn’t recommend that Harvard attempt the play again any time soon, but this Streetcar did do House drama—and Harvard drama—proud.
—Crimson reviewer Benjamin J. Soskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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