A Streetcar Named Desire
nytheatre.com review by Aimee Todoroff
April 27, 2012
In his book Jitterbug Perfume, author Tom Robbins says the weather in New Orleans is “like an obscene phone call from nature. The air—moist, sultry, secretive, and far from fresh—felt as if it were being exhaled into one's face. Sometimes it even sounded like heavy breathing.” Emily Mann’s production of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre, stays true to this invasive, muscular image of New Orleans. Imagined without an ounce of the preciousness that can sometimes plague well-known and well-regarded works, this play brings us an image of the French Quarter that is visceral—hot, close, lush and alive in ways that are sometimes as uncomfortable as they are exhilarating.
The core of this production is the excellent performances by the ensemble. Nicole Ari Parker’s Blanche is a robust, sensual woman. Her performance manages the difficult task of revealing Blanche’s underlying vulnerability that is so often played on the surface, while showing us the strength of a woman who has been forced to bear up against burdens she was unequipped to handle. From her opening scene, we see a great capacity for humor and fun in Blanche, and a bit of a wild streak that makes it clear just why she had so many admirers. But we also see that what limited strength she has is close to complete erosion by her experiences. She does, however, display an impressive reserve of moxie when dealing with Stanley’s provocations. Playing this moment in the character’s development, as opposed to showing us a woman who is impossibly delicate and already mad, is an immensely satisfying choice and one that lets us take the heartbreaking journey with Blanche through the course of the play instead of presenting her downfall as a fore gone conclusion. Parker is at her best when she is connecting to this wry, fragile but grounded character she has developed.
Stella is played with a gorgeous and unnerving subtlety by Daphne Rubin-Vega. Her constant placations of her sister’s whims and the managing of her husband’s outbursts present a picture of a woman who has been dealing with a long history of abuse, and there are hints of Stella’s motivation for leaving Belle Reve, her family home, behind. We see a woman who is less wild than her sister, but driven by desire for her husband to live in her own fantasy of domestic bliss with the illusion of stability it provides. Director Emily Mann has given us wonderful moments of closeness between the sisters, especially an unscripted jitterbug in front of the apartment where we see Blanche and Stella revel in their night on the town. As we see them dance down the lane of the French Quarter, we can feel the connection these two women share and see clearly that they are both products of their shared experiences in their childhood home.
Both of the main men in this production turn in performances that just may redefine their famous roles. Blair Underwood’s Stanley is a fast talking charmer with boundless energy and vigor. There is nothing laconic or simmering his about sensuality, his sex appeal is blatant and aggressive. From the moment he enters and all but rips off his shirt, this Stanley dares the audience to deny his dominance over his house, his wife, and his friends. Underwood delivers his lines at a rapid fire pace that shows a quick wit and intelligence often overlooked in the role. This is no brute, this is a man with savvy, and when Stella says her husband is going places, we believe her. Stanley’s outbursts of violence seem to come suddenly and without warning, but in retrospect, are all preceded by a stillness that is chilling when compared to the live wire energy he utilizes as his base.
The well-rounded portrayal of Mitch by Wood Harris is an unexpected delight. He strikes an empathetic balance as Mitch, a nice man without being neutered, a genteel man respectful of women but who still has desires. His first act is to blatantly flirt with Blanche, which he does awkwardly but with conviction, openly going against Stanley’s wishes. He continues to court Blanche steadily, with a great capacity for understanding which establishes the connection a between the two potential lovers that is deeper than surface concerns of what they can do for each other. When Mitch rejects Blanche, we not only feel the loss of a way out of her dire straits, we feel the loss of a relationship made real through the strength of Harris’s complex performance. Mitch’s return to the apartment to confront Blanche is one of the most haunting scenes in the play, when we see a very drunk Mitch who has been so terribly wronged turn his pain and passion outward to break Blanche’s heart.
The rest of the ensemble is equally strong and are used to their full potential by Mann’s direction. She uses the front of the stage as a sort of promenade where the community can interact with each other and let us see the vibrancy of the French Quarter. Pablo, played with good-humored intensity by Jacinto Taras Riddick, flirts with the Neighbor, Carmen de Lavallade, as he mambos and rumbas his way across town. In his turn at the Young Collector, Aaron Clifton Moten goes through puberty before our eyes as he lounges on the Elysian Fields street sign, attempting to cat call and wolf whistle like the older men before he is quickly put back in his place. The direction, along with the sizzling jazz infused original score by Terence Blanchard, makes this a lively production brimming with activity. Turning one of the most iconic scenes in modern theatrical history around, Mann has Stanley shouting Stella with his back to the audience, putting the focus where it should be—on Stella—and it is breathtaking.
The costumes, designed by Paul Tazewell, are bright and wonderfully imagined. Stella’s opening outfit is reminiscent of Bettie Page; her pregnancy forces her into house dresses. Blanche’s clothes are elegant, refined, but never predictably ethereal. She is made from real stuff, even if that stuff is almost exclusively white. Stanley’s typical white t-shirt has been replaced by lots of reds, and his love of bowling is reflected in his love of bowling shirts. Stanley's vanity shows in his wardrobe, which adds an extra dimension to this characterization and to his relationship with Blanche and Stella, indicating that Stanley and Blanche are actually very similar while revealing part of why Stella loves them both. Edward Pierce’s lighting design is similarly vibrant, at times evoking the hot afternoon sun and other times conjuring up the magical purples, greens and gold of Mardi Gras.
By casting people of color in roles traditionally played by white actors, Emily Mann has done something very rare in modern theatre. She has re-imagined a well-loved play while staying true to the playwright’s intentions. The central themes of desire and status are not obscured by the casting, and in some places are reinforced. The omission of the last name Kowalski is the only change I noticed, and it is a minor one. Certain moments, such as when Blanche refers to Stanley as an animal or when, within Stanley’s hearing, the two lighter-skinned sisters laughingly hope Stella’s baby has blue eyes, cut deeper now that there is a cultural history of discrimination behind them, but it is an asset to the themes presented. Rather than being an extraneous addition, the multi-cultural nature of the community in the French Quarter is a fully integrated aspect of this production.
This production of A Streetcar Named Desire is both challenging and great fun to watch. Like the hot air from a heavy breath, it is at once invasive and stirring, truthfully evoking a time and place alive with color, tension and sensuality. It will change the way you see this classic American play and the relationships between the iconic characters.