A Streetcar Named Desire

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

“That’s a dial phone, honey,” says Stella Kowalski as her older sister, Blanche DuBois, frantically punches the telephone cradle to get an operator’s assistance in sending a telegram. Blanche’s discomfiture–the confusion of a small-town girl trying to cope with a big-city phone system in 1947 New Orleans–provides a fleeting bit of quirky humor in A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’s three-act, three-and-a-half-hour tragedy. But in director Terry Kinney’s superb golden-anniversary revival of the playwright’s greatest work, the moment is a sharp reminder of how much the world has changed in the 50 years since Streetcar’s Broadway premiere.

They don’t write plays like this anymore, that’s for sure. I’m not just talking about quality but about attitudes. The plot and characters are shaped by cultural assumptions that time has long since overturned–for example, the notion of women as goddess-victims in a world sexually and economically dominated by men, crucial to understanding the 30-something Blanche’s refusal to admit her age as she connives to snare a husband. The coarse working-class camaraderie of Stella’s husband Stanley and his poker-playing pals, exotic to theater audiences of Williams’s day, has been sitcom fodder for nearly half a century, from The Honeymooners (which some of Streetcar’s comic moments recall) to Married…With Children. The shocking revelation that Blanche’s dead husband was a homosexual now seems much ado about little–Jerry Falwell’s recent dinosauric reference to “Ellen Degenerate” notwithstanding. And the stigma of Blanche’s past “intimacies with strangers,” so shameful in the sexually repressed America of the late 1940s, now seems as quaint as–well, an operator-assisted phone call to Western Union.

Yet Streetcar remains enduringly potent. Views on gender and class may shift, but the terror of death is fundamental. Blanche’s fluttery pretense of being a young belle sometimes seems plain silly, but most of us can identify with her fear of being trapped by desperate circumstances and her own dark compulsions. And the territorial conflict between Blanche and her brother-in-law is as ancient as prehistoric tribal migration and as contemporary as boardroom bloodletting.

The great strength of Steppenwolf Theatre’s staging is the way it conveys this universality by staying true to specifics. Kinney and his splendid production team–including Robert Brill (set), Laura Cunningham (costumes), Kevin Rigdon (lights), Rob Milburn (sound), and Robin McFarquhar (fight choreography)–have escalated the aural and physical stakes to emphasize the play’s undercurrent of violence. Instead of the melancholy “blue piano” the text calls for, we have composer Kimo Williams’s jagged, rasping horns shredding the air. And the periodic roar of a passing train–Williams’s symbol of sex and death on a collision course (“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries”)–is here a deafeningly tangible fact of life in the French Quarter, as nerve-grindingly loud as it must seem to Blanche’s unraveling mind.

Still, almost every effect Kinney employs is called for in the text, shaped by Williams under the guidance of director Elia Kazan. Marlon Brando, the original Stanley, calls Streetcar “one of the best-written plays ever produced,” and the truth of that judgment is abundantly evident at Steppenwolf as we watch Williams systematically propel the plot by peeling away his characters’ illusions. The Shakespearean breadth of his writing is truly astonishing, ranging from Blanche’s famous flights of fragile poetry (“Sometimes there’s God so quickly,”) to Stanley’s less eloquent but no less intensely felt declarations (“What I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth…so don’t ever call me a Polack”) to inarticulate howls of rage and fear–the play’s climactic eruption into a three-ring circus of horrors is one of the most chilling depictions of pure chaos you’ll ever see in a theater.

Even a great script is no guarantee of success onstage, however. I’ve seen Streetcar derailed, or at least slowed, more times than I care to remember by a campy Blanche, a weak Stanley, or an intrusive director who wanted to comment on the text rather than fulfill it. But here the actors go for the truth of the characters, neither trying to imitate the definitively acted (though textually emasculated) film nor going out of their way to “reinterpret” the script. The production’s cornerstone is, as it should be, Blanche. Armed with a remarkable voice that ranges from singsongy elegance to the howl of a cornered beast chewing off its own foot to escape a trap, New York actress Laila Robins is at once ethereal and earthy, embodying the struggle between spirit and flesh that Williams projected onto the character. Except for Vivien Leigh, who brought to Blanche on-screen a unique resonance drawn in part from her immortal portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara and in part from her own incipient mental illness, Robins is by far the best Blanche I’ve seen, and that includes Jessica Lange and Ann-Margret on TV as well as Sandy Dennis at the old Ivanhoe Theater.

If Robins is a revelation, Gary Sinise’s feral Stanley is just as impressive for the way he defies expectations. Sinise movingly captures the frustrated ambition of an ill-educated, intensely competitive young army veteran who’s returned home a local hero only to find himself stuck in a squalid tenement and a dead-end job, wasting the energy he once used to fight enemy soldiers on drunken card games and slugfests with his young, pregnant wife. (Has any playwright surpassed Williams in the clinical yet compassionate depiction of lovers’ quarrels, as they escalate from vague verbal sniping to physical violence, then spend themselves in remorseful passion?) Sinise is smaller than Stanley is usually conceived to be, but he and Kinney put his short stature to good use. In the famous scene in which Stanley cries out for Stella after she’s fled his drunken, infantile rage, Sinise curls on the ground while Kathryn Erbe’s diminutive, devoted Stella crouches on a step above him to reflect his dependence on her. And Sinise’s showdowns with the tall, forceful Robins come off as the eye-to-eye battles of two equally desperate people–battles that Stanley wins here not through physical superiority but because of his sheer ruthlessness and Blanche’s mental fragility. Fifty years after Brando we don’t need another tower-of-power Stanley; we do need one with a soul, and Sinise delivers.

In the uniformly excellent supporting cast, Amy Morton and Rick Snyder as the Kowalskis’ quarrelsome upstairs neighbors provide ribald comic counterpoint to the struggle on the ground floor, while John C. Reilly makes Mitch, Blanche’s suitor, a weak and inarticulate ape-man caught in a struggle between his sensitive inclinations and bestial urges. His disillusionment–with Blanche, whose pose of purity hides a promiscuous past, and with himself for his willingness to discard decency for gratification–echoes the tragedy at center stage. Captured by a playwright who wrote from his naked heart, this tragedy is brought to new life by a cast who act from their aching guts in a don’t-miss production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Michael Brosilow.