A Streetcar Named Desire may be the most beautifully written play I've ever seen. And thanks to director Tim Ocel, it's also beautifully staged as this year's main event in the Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis. Like James Bond in Ian Fleming's novel, "You Only Live Twice," the audience must wander through a garden of exotic, deadly flowering plants at its own peril. Though, of course, in this production at the Grandel Theatre, the lascivious, poisoned blossoms are all denizens of the bad side of town in postwar New Orleans.
Williams' play debuted on Broadway in 1947, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and then most of the cast (minus Jessica Tandy) transferred to film in 1951. But I avoided that movie, growing up in the 1970s, as it had long since become an object of parody. Now, seeing the play for the first time, I realize that Stanley Kowalski (the smart, tough Nick Narcisi) has no other option but to howl to his wife Stella after a fight. And, it turns out, there's a very specific reason why Blanche DuBois (the inestimable, sexy Sophia Brown) must always have "depended on the kindness of strangers." That memorable line becomes horrible and inevitable here. You can take either moment out of context and make fun of it all you want, but you're only tearing the smile off the Mona Lisa.
This version seems to be set in 1965, the year of Nat King Cole's jaunty "L-O-V-E," though there's also a jangly jazz underscore, especially between scenes—plus some church bells that sound madly like the opening notes of the movie The Wizard of Oz at another point, as if Blanche's time in this black-and-white world is almost over. Much earlier, the entrance of Stanley and his three poker buddies is jazz itself, some wearing wife-beaters under billowing, unbuttoned shirts as they jauntily come to rest around a kitchen table. And perhaps here "the war" they refer to is Vietnam. Either way, it's a war far removed from the imagistic little world on stage. It doesn't really matter, except that war socialized these men in particular ways, just as Southern propriety defined their women.
And that's what bangs together here, the shrewd, loud Stanley versus the seemingly delicate, more cleverly controlling Blanche. It is a steady-rising, magnificent conflict, as we learn of the complexity of her past, and the gargantuan, foolish wickedness that swept her up as a teenager. Lana Dvorak is Stella, the wan, nearly ghostly wife and sister who's caught in the middle. But she's perfectly sensible—they're all perfectly sensible—except for their dog-like grip on the past and future, just beyond the reasonable "now."
Spencer Sickmann is kind and callow as Mitch (the fellow who dates Blanche in this long summer), before all the rottenness is exposed (in a rotten way) in act three. And splendid local actors including Amy Loui, Isaiah DiLorenzo, and Maggie Wininger round out the cast. Each performance has a perfect weight; neither the lavish poetry of Blanche nor her jarring descent into madness is ever forced; it all ties together with her identity as a defrocked English teacher, just as Stanley's grasp of Napoleonic law might be something he's heard of on the shop floor at work. And even the seemingly endless kindness of this Stella gives way to something a little more impatient in the final scenes, as Blanche's prompting for special treatment wears on her younger sister, by then in her third trimester.
It's a great story, the collapse of the old South and the rise of the new, told with an incomparable beauty of words and horrible attitudes of mind: the loss of an estate, a girl destroyed by coincidence and obligation, and her escape into another dimension of sensuality. And, consumed by the culture of her time, she can only find a ravishing, tragic kind of madness in the end.