Stanley Kowalski looms so large in our cultural conscience that it’s easy to forget that “A Streetcar Named Desire” is really about Blanche DuBois, his emotionally disturbed sister-in-law. Much of that is due to Marlon Brando’s iconic portrayal of Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ landmark drama (he originated the role onstage, too), a performance so captivating and animalistic that it changed the trajectory of modern acting.
And yet “Streetcar” is, of course, Blanche’s story; in fact, Stanley disappears for much of the play’s middle section. Watching Spokane Civic Theatre’s current production of the show, it occurred to me that Blanche seems more like a real person than most theatrical characters, because she’s allowed to be so many seemingly contradictory things at once – demure, flamboyant, compassionate, detached, wounded, predatory.
Alyssa Day takes on the role in the Civic’s production, and it’s an unsurprisingly juicy performance. As Williams’ classic opens, the recently widowed Blanche has just arrived in New Orleans, moving in with her younger sister Stella (Nichole Dumoulin) and uncouth brother-in-law Stanley (Billy Hultquist) for an undetermined amount of time.
The Kowalskis live in a two-room apartment in a shabby French Quarter tenement building, where their neighbors squabble as loudly and frequently as they do. The play traps us in the apartment for four or five months, and Matthew Egan’s beautiful set captures the feeling of a home that’s both a sanctuary and a prison.
Blanche has recently relinquished her family’s country estate, Belle Reve, to state creditors, and she’s also left her job as a high school English teacher. “I took those blows to my face and my body,” she laments to Stella, unaware that the actual violence Stanley inflicts on his wife injects that remark with a stinging irony.
The reasons for Blanche’s displacement aren’t immediately apparent, because she’s rarely honest about her own circumstances. Blanche’s duplicity is conveyed in two key scenes where she’s alone with men. One of those involves her gentleman caller Mitch (Jhon Goodwin), a poker buddy of Stanley’s, whom she’s lied to about her age and her romantic history.
This seems like general betrayal: He’s fallen in love with her and discovers she isn’t who she appears. Later, we see Blanche’s friendliness toward a much younger payment collector (Maxim Chumov) develop into an uncomfortable seduction, and we start to wonder if her proclivities are more than just garden variety promiscuity.
Blanche has been abandoned so many times – when her husband died, when her sister fled from Belle Reve, when her mental stability started to slip – that her reliance on the kindness of strangers is most certainly a defense mechanism. She’s a woman living above her means, and when Stanley rifles through Blanche’s trunk and strews her furs and jewelry about his room, he’s chipping away at her last remaining vestige of sanity and security.
Stanley, meanwhile, has an unhealthy preoccupation with social class – his Polish ancestry is his shortest fuse – and he uses his imposing physicality as a cudgel because he’s terrified of being labeled “common.” He’s also overly concerned with what he refers to as “the Napoleonic Code,” which dictates that a wife’s property is also her husband’s, but maybe not the other way around.
The Civic’s production, directed by Troy Nickerson, turns out to be a compelling piece of vintage theater, but I have to wonder if it isn’t quite sweaty and feverish enough. That’s not to say this show is completely subdued or boring, but it sometimes feels too much like a reverent museum piece. Perhaps I’m comparing it unfairly to Kazan’s great film, which better communicated the oppressive heat and menacing carnality of Williams’ script.
But maybe playing this material a bit quieter deepens the impact of the show’s unexpected emotional outbursts. The show is anchored by a quartet of superlative performances: Hultquist as the hulking, bestial Stanley; Goodwin as the kindhearted but fickle Mitch; Dumoulin as Stella, nurturing to a fault; and Day as Blanche, whose emotional arc we know will end in a breakdown.
As brilliant as Tennessee Williams was, it can be difficult for contemporary actors to commit to his flowery, blustery dialogue without tipping over into parody. That doesn’t happen here. “A Streetcar Named Desire” is nearly 70 years old, but its final 20 minutes still hit us with the blunt, unavoidable force of Stanley Kowalski himself. It remains a resonant drama about lost people trying to find themselves in one another, and it’s a pleasure to see theater as rich and nervy as this on a local stage.
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