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A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams Festival, 2018

Joe and Ann Pollack – St. Louis Eats and Drinks

A Streetcar Named Desire kicks off this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis. Get thee hither. 

I’m not sure what scholars say about this work, but I think it’s probably Williams’ masterpiece. For those who don’t know the story, Blanche, a fading Southern belle comes to visit her married sister Stella in New Orleans. She’s living in a two-room apartment with her husband Stan Kowalski. He’s a blue-collar guy, but Stella is obviously crazy about him. He and Blanche, however, are on two different planets, and push eventually comes to shove. 

Blanche both is and isn’t as delicate as she seems. Sophia Brown gives us a far less porcelain-like Blanche than she’s sometimes portrayed, starting out as a merely cliched portrait of such a woman, although obviously a very high-strung one, quickly moving deeper as the character begins to reveal herself in an outburst aimed at Stella. Blanche has always been the dominant elder sister, and the dynamics haven’t changed. 

On reflection, that’s probably part of the dynamics in Stella’s choice of Stanley for a mate. He’s strongly opinionated, defensive when he feels his values are challenged and very much a guy’s guy in the classic mid-twentieth-century mode. Poker games at their kitchen table, plenty of beer and whiskey around, shirts peeled off because of the heat, and an unknowing ambivalence toward his wife despite her almost dog-like affection for him, it’s a sort of lower-class Mad Men group of guys gathering at that table. One of the guys, the only single one, is Mitch. Mitch takes care of his ailing mother. It’s inevitable that he is attracted to Blanche and she to him. There’s a tragic romance in each of their pasts, which is the initial bonding, despite his naivete and her history, which is far less innocent than she would have New Orleans believe. 

So we have secrets, expectations, tempers, heat and alcohol. What could go wrong? This is Tennessee Williams, so the answer is clear: Almost everything. 

Director Tim Ocel has assembled a fine, yea, superb cast. They sizzle. Led by Brown’s Blanche, it’s great work all around. Stanley – who really is “opposite” Blanche, to use the stage term, rather than his wife Stella – is Nick Narcisi, a guy who gives off heat every time he breathes. Blanche has invaded his territory and he’s the alpha dog dealing with the intrusion. Stella, the wife whose name he bellows in the classic scene, is brought to us by Lana Dvorak, a woman who bears up under the conflict between her husband and her sister, giving her warmth and dignity, unable to choose and not understanding that not choosing is actually making a choice. And then there’s Mitch, Spencer Sickmann, who’s an unassailable nice guy, strong and caring and hesitantly tender with this woman who seems – only metaphorically – to have fallen in his lap. 

One wonders in a play like this, with its emphasis on the morality and mores of the period, if the generations now in their youth can grasp the taboos Streetcar is based on. Williams’ work was acclaimed and decried because of its sexuality, even though there is moralizing in it Williams must have included as a nod to convention – or perhaps other, more personal, things. To pass it up or put it down on that basis is to miss an essential American theatre experience. 

The period details, like the candlestick phone, are on the money. And Blanche powdering her face before walking into the assemblage of guys on poker night was a gesture right out of the period and now never seen. And speaking of “out of the period”, I can’t remember the last time I heard a man referred to as a wolf, a term long gone in the #MeToo era. James Wolk’s scenic design brings us right there, including the upstairs flat, and Michele Siler’s costumes, especially for the would-be-ethereal Blanche, contribute greatly. I was particularly taken with Sean Savoie’s lighting, and again one returns to the poker scene. There’s a Thomas Hart Benton painting now in the Whitney Museum in New York of the poker game, commissioned by David O. Selznick as a gift for his wife Irene, who was the producer who brought Streetcar to Broadway originally, which is immediately brought to mind. But his lighting expertise goes well beyond that scene; it’s a crucial element. So, too, is something completely new, Henry Palkes’ original score that blends in so well with the script. 

This is such a strong play, with complex characters, no heroes, all with fragility and foibles, and a strong cast, that I’m happy to say it’s a good thing to see despite the one flaw. The remodeled Grandel still has dead spots in the audience (unless, I am told, the actors are miked), and one misses some of the dialogue. Opening night it got somewhat better as the evening progressed, but it seems unavoidable. The work is superb and it’s worth putting up with that one problem to watch something that’s such an experience.

Curtain at 7.30 p.m. on the evening shows. Grand Center is busy right now, so allow time for parking. There’s a limited run. Go. It’s worth it.

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