A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Writers’ Theatre
Eunice: “Well, why don’t you just go in and make yourself at home till they get back?”
Blanche: “How could I—do that?” —Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
David Cromer’s masterful Writers’ Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire is just about as intimate as it can be, putting us nearly in the laps of the actors, but I’ve never felt less at home in a theatrical setting. From Josh Schmidt’s cacophonous bebop-style underscoring to the screeching of the upstairs neighbors to the bare-bulb ugliness and clutter of the tenement-flat set, this show works the nerves.
Yet it also allows for resonances I’ve never encountered before in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 masterpiece. In Cromer’s version, the famous tale of Blanche DuBois’ sojourn with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s mechanic husband, Stanley Kowalski, becomes nothing less than a metaphor for squabbling America, awash in resentments and engaged in a death match over who gets to stay in Elysian Fields—which is not just the name of the rundown New Orleans street where the Kowalskis live but also, in Greek mythology, the ultimate destination of heroes.
Most critical analysis of Streetcar has faded southern belle Blanche—who claims she “never was hard or self-sufficient enough”—getting crushed like a butterfly by crude, sensual Stanley. But it’s possible to feel enormous sympathy for Natasha Lowe’s embattled Blanche and still recognize that she’s a gigantic, self-absorbed pain in the ass, with prejudices spectacularly unsuited to the steamy, polyglot world of the French Quarter, where Stanley (or, as Blanche calls him, “the Polack”) plays poker with a Latino coworker and the neighbors joke about the “meat” he brings home to Stella.
I’m no fan of Vivien Leigh’s portrayal of Blanche in the 1951 Elia Kazan film adaptation of the play. Leigh is too mannered, too swathed in a creaky gentility that advertises her victimhood from the get-go. Lowe, by stark contrast, has a watchful edginess much more in tune with a woman who’s at once desperate and tough enough to have come from Mississippi in a last-ditch maneuver to get Stella’s help even if it means destroying Stella’s marriage.
And the fact is, Stella owes Blanche a lot. Of all the memorable lines in this play, the one that never fails to get me is Blanche’s description of the “long parade to the graveyard” that she witnessed alone, nursing and burying one family member after another while Stella was off in her carnal Neverland with Stanley. Blanche isn’t a weakling, but she’s been sapped by her gruesome slog, and thinks it only fair that Stella step up to the plate and take care of her now, in her time of need.
But Stella is incapable of acknowledging that she’s abandoned her sister. Blanche may prefer Chinese lanterns and candles to the unforgiving glare of incandescent bulbs, but the “colored lights” that Stanley turns on for her in bed—and this production shows us more than just rumpled sheets—keep Stella from seeing the truth about him. “People have got to tolerate each other’s habits, I guess,” she observes airily—even though one of Stanley’s is assaulting his pregnant wife.
Real-life couple Matt Hawkins and Stacy Stoltz play Stanley and Stella like horndog teenagers in the first throes of passion. Hawkins’s Stanley is a young man who’s still figuring out his place in the world. Nowhere near as self-assured as Brando, he’s almost naive enough to get the wool pulled over his eyes by Blanche’s flirtatious affectations. The choice doesn’t make Stanley’s “deliberate cruelty” any more forgivable, but it does make the battle royal between him and Blanche more equal. Stanley derides Blanche for not having a “goddamn thing but imagination,” but he, too, flirts with the easy allure of magical thinking. At the end of the play, when Blanche’s defeat is assured, he boasts, “To hold front position in this rat race you’ve got to believe you are lucky.” That’s the kind of hubris that keeps America’s financial titans humming.
Cromer’s subtle but consistent emphasis on the dualities at the heart of Streetcar gives this production unparalleled intellectual heft and emotional dynamism. Blanche and Stanley represent many of the bitter divides that have bedeviled the American psyche from the start: agrarianism vs. industry, old-guard insularity vs. melting-pot vitality, reverence for tradition vs. a heady embrace of the future. And Collette Pollard’s set—two rooms barely separated by a flimsy curtain—physicalizes those divisions down to the smallest detail. Blanche’s trunk overflows with furs and furbelows, for instance, while Stanley’s neat military locker stands guard at the foot of his bed, at times providing a launching pad for his self-satisfied preening.
Blanche is the ultimate victim of this war of opposites, but significant collateral damage is suffered by Stella and by Mitch—Stanley’s lonely, goodhearted pal, who woos Blanche until Stanley poisons him against her. In a black-and-white world, the people caught in the middle suffer as much as anyone. I expect I’ll remember Danny McCarthy’s heartbreaking turn as Mitch for many years.
Cromer doesn’t pull any major theatrical rabbits out of his hat here, the way he did with his justly celebrated Our Town, first presented by the Hypocrites and still running off-Broadway. But his smart, sharply honed show tears away the Spanish moss of sentimentality that sometimes shrouds this play and lays bare our tragic flaws, both as individuals and as a people: our impatience with vulnerability, our inability to deal honestly with loss, our belief that things will be fine if only we can go back to a better time or get rid of those people who are keeping us from our true destiny. By anatomizing this quintessential domestic tragedy of manners with keen sympathy, Cromer and his cast have created a haunting disquisition on our national belief that making ourselves at home depends on excluding those who aren’t like us.