A Streetcar Named Desire

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Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

ANY REVIVAL OF A MASTERPIECE like A Streetcar Named Desire is an important theatrical event.

Jewel Theatre Company’s production at the Colligan Theater in Santa Cruz has some fine moments and offers some interesting new ideas. It tells the story clearly and gives an accessible picture of the characters’ relationships. What it sometimes misses are depths and shoals that lie under the surface-events of Tennessee Williams’ urban tragedy.

The lead characters, of course, have become so much a part of American theater and movie history that they are a challenge to any present-day performer. The central figure is a thirty-plus Southern belle turned schoolmarm named Blanche DuBois, who lives in a magnolia-scented dream world of long-lost male admirers, highbrow culture and fading feminine allure. When her antebellum Mississippi home and her teaching job both collapse, she seeks refuge with her married sister in a raucous working class corner of 1940s New Orleans.

Julie James plays Blanche with energy and conviction. She is such a forceful stage presence that I wondered early on whether she would project the moth-like vulnerability that has made the role a plum for A-List actresses over half a century. But James’ second act is a revelation. She presents Blanche’s highfalutin’ ploys and falsehoods as pieces of desperate play-acting by a determined trickster, who, as she ruefully confesses to her sister Stella, is finding it harder and harder to turn the trick.

James is at her best in moments when Blanche can gradually slough off pretense and open her heart. The scene where she tells Kurt Meeker’s wonderfully solid Mitch of her tragic marriage to a homosexual poet had an underlying truth the opening-night audience recognized and applauded.

The earlier set piece where she wistfully vamps, kisses and then dismisses a teenaged newspaper collection agent, movingly played by Travis Rynders, is another nice blend of artifice giving way to honesty.

The play’s second major role is Stella’s strident, macho husband Stanley, who immediately sees through Blanche’s pretensions and works ruthlessly to send her packing. Brent Schindele wisely avoids mirroring postures and intonations that made Marlon Brando famous and have become both icons and clichés of 20th century acting. Schindele moves powerfully and is appropriately explosive in Stanley’s frequent fits of rage, the first aimed at Blanche whom he regards as a scheming spendthrift, the next a brawling tirade that ends in his smashing Stella in the jaw. Here and elsewhere, Schindele works up a good head of steam but he does so in such a clipped, speedy and pizzicato tone that he buries a lot of Stanley’s salty wit and seems more like an irritated suburban bank clerk than a hot-blooded factory worker.

Costumes by a designer who calls herself B. Modern don’t help. Stanley enters in a spotless sleeveless undershirt, which he takes off and replaces with another spotless sleeveless undershirt. He remains laundered, well-groomed and nattily dressed through most of the rest of the play. It’s a possible and interesting new look at the character: Stanley Kowalski as a working-class fashion plate. But it makes nonsense of Blanche’s extended and terrified description of him as half ape and half caveman.

Schindele’s off-stage wife Erika is an appealing Stella. In her pedal-pushers and gardening shirt I thought at the beginning she might be too perky for the role, but she went on to provide the right seam of earthiness; notably when angry and estranged from Stanley, she comes down a flight of stairs in a sensuous response to his cries of “Stell-a!” In a production that tends to steer clear of copycat past models, director Susan Myer Silton seems to have decided, at least here, to let ‘er rip with a neat facsimile of the steamy Elia Kazan movie scene.

I liked the way native New Orleans characters check in minutes before the play starts. They occupy the set, chat, lounge, set up props and furniture, creating a nice sense of the close-knit, high energy, love-me-hate-me neighborhood community Blanche is about to invade and threaten.

I was impressed too by the decision to have Travis Rynders appear not only as the bemused collection agent, but in tropical white suiting and a Panama hat as the silent figure of Blanche’s dead husband Allan whenever she remembers or describes him.

In place of the “blue trumpet” Williams calls for in his stage directions, Jewel offers a second level on-stage jazz combo—piano, bass and horn, played respectively by Ben Dorfan, Matt Bohn, and Luke Medina. They bridge the scene breaks and provide occasional unobtrusive mood music. I thought that would include the unsettling moments when Blanche, once she’s spiraling into madness, can’t wipe from her mind the strains of the varsoviana that was playing at the time her husband shot himself outside Moon Lake Casino. This struggle with a relentless wisp of music from the past was, to my recollection, mentioned only once and was not, as in other productions, backed by distant, distorted strains of the piece. Maybe Silton and the acting company decided the ghostly presence of the dead husband was enough back story atmosphere. Personally, considering this version’s strong emphasis on music, I was sorry it was left out. But then, who else even remembers that dance?

The stage set, while admirably flexible and accommodating to action on two levels struck me, like Stanley’s costumes, as too bright and middle class. Blanche’s first shock on arrival at Elysian Fields is seeing the tawdry quarters her high-born sister now occupies near the French Quarter. JR Bruce’s set looks a bit unkempt, but the light colored walls and trendy 1940s chairs and period home appliances and kitchenware scarcely justify Blanche’s description of the place as something out of Edgar Allan Poe.

Like Shakespeare, Williams’ works are not just about what happens but about what the characters say about it and how they say it. It is not naturalistic dialogue. His characters talk a poetry that sometimes embodies their pretensions as well as their honest hopes and dreams. To treat the dialogue like natural speech, as happens too often in this production, blurs important insights and soft-pedals words that are still important to hear, even if they have become familiar parts of the American theatrical lexicon. These familiar phrases, like Shakespeare’s rhymed couplets, often round-off a scene or sequence, summing up its significance or hinting at what lies ahead.

There’s just no avoiding the fact that more than in most modern scripts, Williams’ words matter a lot. But at Jewel, Blanche’s exclamation “Sometimes there’s God so quickly!” when she seems to have found sanctuary in marriage to Mitch, were skimmed-over too quickly on opening night. Just before he rapes Blanche, Stanley is supposed to tell her, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.” If that was actually said on opening night; it didn’t carry as far as Row E.

And those most famous and oft-quoted words, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” were just audible, but, whether by chance or design, didn’t have much impact.

The show is a sometimes exciting and sometimes disappointing mixture of treasures and things that could work better. But it’s well-worth seeing.