A Streetcar Named Desire
By Dalt Wonk
OCTOBER 6, 1997: There is a crucial scene in A Streetcar Named Desire that takes place on the morning after the poker game -- that beer-soaked mayhem that culminated in wife-beating. Blanche expects the battered Stella to be packing her bags. (Meanwhile, however, Stella has had her famous reconciliation with Stanley in which we glimpse the deep sexual bond that holds the marriage together.)
Blanche is serious. She has flipped into that mood of frankness she is capable of and which is so at odds with her desperate, defensive paper lanterns of illusion.
Blanche has known her share of "rough trade." The great tragedies of her life -- the parade to the graveyard at Belle Reve and the suicide of her "sensitive" (homoerotic) young husband -- catapulted her into a psychic wasteland where she sought the "kindness of strangers" in its most direct and carnal expression. Blanche knows all the humiliating and degrading byways of need.
None the less, Blanche is shocked. A man like Stanley? For a night, perhaps, or two nights, or even three. But she can not believe her sister will utterly give up the basic values they were raised to cherish. She appeals to her sister -- this time, not out of her superficial and irritating snobbism, but from the depths of her being -- in the name of civilization itself. She appeals to Stella to stand up for sensitivity and kindness, for beauty, delicacy and art.
By contrast, she calls Stanley an animal, an ape, a prehuman form of existence. Of course, Stanley is listening just outside the screen door, and we know now, if we ever doubted it, that this formidable brute will make it a point to destroy his detractor.
In the current production of Streetcar at Southern Rep, director John Grimsley has decided to accept Blanche's words not merely as truthful, but as accurate -- in an almost clinical sense.
Michael Arata as Stanley is a baleful, borderline psychotic. He is not a World War II-style former G.I. with locker-room manners and a macho crudity of outlook. He is the guy who would have kicked off the My Lai massacre.
And to that extent, this is a Streetcar for our times, which, after all, is no small accomplishment when one considers how indelibly these characters have been stamped into our minds by the great screen archetypes.
Stanley as a demonic barbarian creates some problems for Stella (portrayed with deft and convincing nonchalance by Eva Earls). Stella is now not merely someone who has dropped down into a lower social class; she is a battered woman, a sort of sexual slave who thrives on dominance. We admire the pluck with which she stands up to Stanley at times -- partly because we are always afraid he is about to haul off and wallop her.
I don't think that was Tennessee Williams' intention. It almost seems like the world he is describing has slipped so far away, that the norms of that world are hard for a younger generation to grasp.
The very language through which we perceive things has shifted. For instance, I don't know when the word "macho" came into general parlance, but you can be sure that the denizens of 1940s Elysian Fields would have looked at you cross-eyed if you mentioned "gender stereotypes." You have to think back to a time when the feminine sex grew moist-eyed over songs like "My Guy" rather than "I Am Woman!"
My point is that Stanley was an extreme case, but still somewhat representative. He was not so far from the norm as to be a danger to himself and others. He would not have been considered a psychopath.
But a psychopathic Stanley does not by any means ruin the play. For one thing, Blanche's dilemma is both crystal clear and truly terrifying. And in this difficult role, Shelley Poncy creates a character who is complex, touching, brave, brittle and doomed -- perhaps as close to a tragic heroine as our culture deserves. And Danny Bowen provides her with an appealing Mitch, who is more of a regular guy than a mama's boy.
An excellent supporting cast gives the necessary ballast to the intense triangle at the play's center.
The elaborate musical underscoring -- an innovation as far as I know -- proves to be a mixed blessing. Delfeayo Marsalis' music is eminently listenable and sometimes enhances the mood of the piece. But sometimes it's jarring.
Fifty years after its original production, Streetcar remains an astonishing play. Seeing it again, you will feel you have answered Blanche's appeal and opted, at least for that one night, in favor of civilization, of art, of beauty. .
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