“A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams
New Repertory Theater in residence at the Arsenal Center for the Arts
September 11 - October 7, 2007
Running time 3 hours 15 minutes with two 10 minute intermissions
A streetcar named Desire rumbled through the rowdy streets of 1947 New Orleans delivering Blanche DuBois to her sister Stella’s cramped one bedroom apartment where she lived with her husband Stanley Kowalski. The streetcar couldn’t have caused any more of a tragic mess had it plowed right through the tiny apartment in their blue-collar neighborhood.
One spectacular reason to find your way to the New Repertory Theater Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’s “Streetcar Named Desire” in Watertown is Rachel Harker in the role of Blanche DuBois. Harker’s incandescent performance nails Blanche’s incremental decline from quiet desperation to madness.
It’s a bear of a play to stage - thousands of words of dialogue, sustained emotional range required from the four principal actors, and running time of over three hours. It can wear down all but the most involved actors, let alone an audience. And of course there’s the 1951 Elia Kazan film adaptation that hurtled Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh to fame.
Todd Alan Johnson as Stanley, Marianna Bassham as Stella, Rachel Harker as Blanche in the New Repertory Theater Company production. Photo Boston Globe.
Under Harker’s command, Blanche’s coquetry, rage, desire to be loved, dysfunctional sexuality, deluded sense of gentility, and a stubborn incapacity to acknowledge the smallest of self-truths, flash like facets of a Cartier diamond.
In a first week performance, the nearly packed house broke into spontaneous applause after Blanche’s gut stoked tirade about Stanley that begins, “"He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits! Eats like one, moves like one, talks like one! There's something even sub-human-something not quite to the stage of humanity yet!…”
Blanche mismanaged and lost the family’s large home, Belle Reve, in Mississippi. She was fired from her teaching job for seducing a high school student. Before journeying to New Orleans, she “had depended on the kindness of strangers,” men whom she solicited in a flea bitten hotel in Mississippi. Harker’s deconstruction of Blanche comes from some visceral place that most of us don’t dare to plumb.
Todd Alan Johnson seems miscast as Stanley. The sexual tension that underlies the antagonism between him and Blanche is not present. Nor is chemistry obvious between him and his wife Stella.
His rages and the alpha dog mentality that fuel relationships with his wife and friends are loud but disconnected. The high-pitched voice he affects in his fits of temper is brittle and monochromatic. I never saw the 1951 film but bet that no matter what the pitch, Brando’s voice had to be laced with wily or transparent testosterone. The final bedroom scene between Stanley and Blanche is disappointingly flat and anti-climactic.
Marianna Bassham as Stella refracts more convincingly against Blanche than with her husband Stanley. There’s nitro but not enough glycerine to make us buy into her lust for Stanley and her acceptance of her life style of men’s night out bowling leagues and revolving card games. Stella’s guilt and relief when she agrees to institutionalize Stella will cost her.
Compared to the hefty dialogue time for Blanche, Stella, and Stanley, Bates Wilder’s Mitch seems more of a sketch than a bored-in character. Blanche’s flirting with him is desperate and doomed. Perhaps Wilder underplays Mitch’s own desperation and yearning for connection.
John R. Malinowski’s setting is especially gritty, close quartered, and utilitarian. He fashioned the Kowalski's apartment upon a dais with an alley that crescents around it in a semi-circle, and a semi-opaque second floor apartment where the neighbors argue. Neon signs from nearby stores and bars beckon from the perimeter. For the observant, he adds subtle changes in the apartment’s décor that underscore Blanche’s presence from act to act.
Frances Nelson Mc Sherry’s costume design is very 1950s. John Malinowski’s lighting is straightforward on/off to accommodate brief scene changes.
Tennessee Williams grew up in a dysfunctional southern family and was no stranger to sexual tension, violence and loneliness - the themes that vein his plays.
To some incalculable degree, whether expressed overtly or experienced internally, these themes inhabit our own emotional fabric. We may loathe Blanche’s deficiencies but we understand something about the demons that throttle her.