Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Streetcar Named Desire (Cleveland Play House)

‘STREETCAR’ gives a proficient, but not compelling ride at CPH

Tennessee Williams is considered one of America’s greatest modern playwrights. His works, along with those of Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller and William Inge, have reached the level of classics and continue to be produced and produced. For example, ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, has had over 20,000 productions since it opened on Broadway in 1947 and went on to win many awards including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play, and its movie version, have many highlights. It was Williams’ second smash hit, following on the heels of his THE GLASS MENAGERIE. In 1995 it was made into an opera with music by Andre Previn.

Vivien Leigh garnered an Academy Award for the movie version for her portrayal of Blanche, while Jessica Tandy won the Tony Award for her portrayal in the staged version. In contrast to what many believe, the role of Stanley was not Brando’s first Broadway appearance. He was in ‘I REMEMBER MAMA’ in 1944. As for Brando’s casting in ‘STREETCAR,’ Williams recalled that one day, while he was doing rewrites for the play, he opened the screen door of his summer home to find Brando there asking to play Stanley. Williams knew instantly that he had his Stanley Kowalski.

On the surface, the play centers on the psychological and physical conflicts between Blanche DuBois, a faded Southern belle with a history of nymphomania and alcoholism, and her sister Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, a thunderstorm of brutish sensuality.

‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ centers on many themes. A recurring topic is the conflict between reality and fantasy. Blanche does not want, "..what's real, but what's magic." Blanche's deception of others and herself is not characterized by malicious intent, but rather a heart-broken retreat to a romantic time before disaster struck when her young husband was revealed as being gay and subsequently committed suicide.

Another theme centers on the very title of the play. Blanche states, “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire and then transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and then get off at Elysian Fields. The streetcar and its route, which is a reality in New Orleans history, does, in fact, transport her on a ride of ultimate doom. Interestingly, Williams played with many titles while developing the play including: ‘THE MOTH,’ ‘BLANCHE'S CHAIR ON THE MOON,’ and ‘THE POKER NIGHT,’ finally settling on the one with the most symbolic meaning for the core of the script.

In contrast to most American plays, ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ is characterized by the absence of a male protagonist imbued with heroic qualities. Instead, there is Stanley, who Blanche describes as a "...survivor of the Stone Age." She recounts his uncivilized manners, demanding and forceful behavior, lack of empathy, selfishness, and chauvinistic attitude towards women. Interestingly, Stanley is not a villain, per se, but a symbol of the changing South of the mid-20th century which included the destruction of real or portrayed codes of chivalry for which the old south was noted.

Williams’ plays, including ‘STREETCAR,’ reflect his life. His mother never adjusted to being ripped out of her southern home and being transported to the North by a husband who had difficulty holding a job and was often brutish. Williams had an older sister named Rose who was emotionally and mentally unstable. She was the model for the sister in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE.’ Based on his mother and sister’s fragility, many of his women characters find themselves in societies that they don’t understand and which don’t understand them. This is another theme in ‘STREETCAR.’

The loss of a lover also is part of Williams’ life. The death of his long-time life-partner Frank Merlo sent Williams into a deep depression that lasted for many years and resulted in drug and alcohol dependency.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the direction of Michael Bloom, succeeds on many levels, yet gets off track on others.

The play looks right in Todd Rosenthal’s French Quarter New Orleans setting.

Kelly Mares (Stella), Lucas Caleb Rooney (Blanche’s disillusioned suitor Mitch) and Starla Benford (the Kowalski’s neighbor) all shine. They develop clear and consistent characterizations.

Hollis Resnik has many outstanding moments as Blanche. Her slender body and vulnerable looks help create the right illusion...a moth about to be extinguished by a flame. Many of her soliloquies are effectively delusional. However, her emotional break at the end of play needed to be more clear and pathetic. She needed to wilt, to totally leave her ever-decreasing world of reality. Her face and voice failed to emotionally wrench the audience as she stated one of the theatre’s most powerful under-stated lines, “I’ve always been dependent upon the kindness of strangers.” In addition, I can only assume, based on her talent, that if Resnik had been playing opposite a more proficient Stanley, a Stanley who engendered sexual tension between them, her portrayal would have been stronger.

Though he physically fit the role, Jason Paul Field was unconvincing in his portrayal of Stanley. This was not the animalistic, sensual Stanley that Williams’ wrote about. It was all surface portrayal, substituting yelling for emotional strength, with no texturing. I must wonder, as I did earlier in the season with the miscasting of the lead role in ‘ROOM SERVICE,’ what criteria CPH is using for its casting selections.

Though it might seem like a minor point, Joshua John McKay looked too old to portray the young collector who Blanche attempts to seduce. In a small, but pivitol scene, we need to gain an insight into Blanche’s desire for attractive young men, a desire based on needing someone to replace her young lost love.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting failed to create all the right moods. The dark shadows, the symbolism of hidden desires and needs, and the feeling of New Orleans’ heat were missing.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ was an adequate production which should satisfy most audience members. However, this is one of the greatest American dramas and should have been enthralling. Michael Bloom’s directing debut as the new Artistic Director of the CPH was not all we could have hoped for.