Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

by Beth Hammarlund

My first encounter with A Streetcar Named Desire was a 1992 episode of The Simpsons. In “A Streetcar Named Marge,” Maggie Great Escape'd her way out of The Ayn Rand School for Tots, (which I found especially funny since by sixth grade I already had a bizarre love/hate relationship with The Fountainhead), but more importantly, Marge Simpson tackled the role of Blanche DuBois in the local community theater’s musical version of the iconic play. Perhaps the most notable scene from their production included Marge swinging from the rafters while fluorescent lights flashed and a foggy mist rolled across the stage. It was the director's subtle dramatization of Blanche's descent into madness.

I may have been 11, but I was not an idiot, and I got the joke. The Simpsons had taken a masterpiece of American dramatic literature and turned it into an over-the-top soap opera with special effects. It wasn’t until I went to college and majored in theater that I realized the only reason Williams himself didn’t include similar pseudo-rave stage directions is that fluorescent lights and smoke machines had not yet been invented.

Please understand that these playful jabs at the late Williams come from a place of deep admiration and affection. He was a marvelous playwright and a beautiful wordsmith. With the turn of a phrase, he could break your heart into a million pieces and then put it back together again. But he was also a man with a passion for the melodramatic, and I suspect that if he were alive today, his favorite show would be True Blood. "Stellaaa!...I mean, Soooookie! You are miiine!" Yep, Williams would have most certainly ponied up for HBO if he knew all the delicious gothic camp that was in store for him. So when my friend Jay Gabler posted his polarizing review and his follow-up blog entry of the Guthrie’s production of Streetcar on The Twin Cities Daily Planet, I could see where he was coming from. A Streetcar Named Desire is a legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but that doesn’t mean it's not an exercise in extreme melodrama.

Imagined gunshots and ghostly polka music can feel a bit ridiculous when one is trying to watch a serious play. And the constant use of streetcar sound effects to highlight Blanche's mental decline isn't exactly subtle. Perhaps the stage direction didn't feel quite as campy when the play made its Broadway debut. But whether you were watching Streetcar in 1947 or are planning to catch it for the first time during the current production's run, one must remember that Blanche has created a fantasy world for herself, and it is only through that magical lens that we can truly understand and empathize with her story.

It is oft speculated that Williams found inspiration for Blanche in his sister Rose. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and eventually lobotomized, leaving her non-verbal for the remainder of her life. But in addition to this horrible loss, Williams himself struggled intensely with addiction and depression. He constantly feared for losing his mind, and Blanche symbolized that fear for his own sanity as much as she emulated his beloved sister. Beneath the histrionics, A Streetcar Named Desire is a devastatingly personal work. And when the marvelous Gretchen Egolf delivered her delicate ramblings in that slightly quivering Southern drawl, my heart broke not only for Blanche, but also for Tennessee.

Though director John Miller-Stephany's production was not groundbreaking, it was certainly a capable and faithful execution of a master writer's work. The production design was confident, and the cast seemed to relish their meaty roles. Egolf's Blanche was both pathetic and intoxicating, pitiful and fascinating. She was the soft romantic light from a cheap paper lantern over a bare light bulb, while Stacia Rice's Stella was the slow burn of a lit cigarette. Rice's performance was solid and steady, and throughout she managed to imbue Stella with an unmistakable sensuality and passion. With one sister so rooted in reality and the other in fantasy, it was rewarding to see the two actresses sharing moments that felt so genuine and affectionate.

As for Stanley Kowalski, I both admire and pity any actor brave enough to devote himself to the role. Perhaps more than any other character in 20th century theater, Stanley is haunted by one particular performance. No, not Ned Flanders. I'm talking about the one and only Marlon Brando. Ricardo Antonio Chavira's portrayal of the Stella's brutish husband was impressively ambitious but occasionally fell short. He easily captured the frustrated emotional outbursts of a volatile man-child, but never quite nailed the the smoldering allure that makes Stella and Stanley's ardor for one another so believable.

Though I would be curious to see a more stripped-down version of Streetcar at some point, I can't help but fear that such a production would require stripping down Blanche of who she is. And it seems almost cruel to steal that fantasy away from her, when it's all she has left. It’s like Ms. DuBois says, “I don’t want realism, I want magic.”

For more info on the play and to purchase tickets visit

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