"A Streetcar Named Desire" was a play first, and Norfolk's Virginia Stage Company likes it that way
January 20, 2017
Photos taken by Steve Earley during rehearsals for "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Did Scarlett and Marlon ruin a great play?
The 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” was overwrought to the point of melodrama.
Vivien Leigh, best known as the lead in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” was a British actress overdoing a Southern accent and mannered flirtation; she brought a big dose of Scarlett O’Hara into her Blanche DuBois, but without Scarlett’s empowerment.
In the movie, Blanche shows up to stay in the tiny, sticky-hot New Orleans home of her sister, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski. Pretty soon, Blanche becomes the wounded gazelle to Brando’s vicious, stalking lion, Stanley. Though their performances were acclaimed as powerfully authentic, these days the film seems a bit much.
“I just feel that this play has been judged against the film, which I think is dated and kitschy,” said Chris Hanna, who is directing “Streetcar” for the Virginia Stage Company production opening tonight at the Wells Theatre. It runs through Feb. 5.
He and his lead actors have their own ideas about “Streetcar,” like making the characters more real, and uncovering what’s funny.
Hanna, the company’s artistic director emeritus, chose this play to coincide with the reopening of the Wells, which was renovated last year. After the last major renovation, in 1987, the company reopened with another Williams play, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Beyond that, Hanna said, “this is an important juncture for the Virginia Stage Company, with a new leader” – Tom Quaintance, producing artistic director, who started Dec. 1 – “and a new renovation. We needed to have a solid classic on the stage.”
Though it’s a well-known title, it’s not produced often, partly because it requires exceptional acting and directing.
Plus, there’s that film, showing Stanley as unrepentantly cruel, and Blanche as pathetically deluded and riding a loud, rumbling trolley to Crazyland.
What Hanna wanted was “two intelligent power players up there.” In his version, as seen in rehearsals two weeks ago, they are duking it out like well-matched boxers for round after round in a sweaty arena.
And when they each launch into outrageous and colorful rants about the other, it’s OK to laugh.
“I’m really hoping this production finds humor,” Hanna said.
It’s right there in the script, said Brandy Zarle, who portrays Blanche. “You go to such dark places, you need that.”
The actors portraying Stanley and Blanche want their characters to come down a little closer to life-sized. Both performers scrutinized the play and believe they have found portrayals that clarify their characters’ behavior.
Then, as part of an ensemble, they worked to fit their interpretations into Hanna’s concept and build them in relation to the entire cast.
“We are not playing Stanley as a monster,” said Jeff Barry, who portrays him. “We’re pursuing this story in a much more complex way. These are real people. They seem understandable.”
“I love Stanley,” the actor said. “He’s the guy you want to hang out with and go have some beers with. He’s fun to be around. On the bad days, he might not be that fun to be around.” When he’s had one too many, he can blow his top, smack his wife and tear up the place.
He starts out fine with Blanche as she moves in, supposedly for a short time. Then he learns things, and hears things, and the game is on. “This is a guy who got pushed too far,” Barry said. “We don’t see that in the film. We just see this big, loudmouthed guy.”
He and Stella are strongly attached, and a big part of it is sexual. Blanche, a former schoolteacher with refined tastes, tells her sister, in a hilarious monologue, that Stanley’s an ape.
There’s a moment in the story where Stanley shifts from casual disdain of Blanche’s pretentious baloney to something more sinister. He has just gotten home, but pauses outside the door, listening to Blanche put him down.
He realizes that Blanche wants Stella to leave him. “Under no circumstances would he allow that to happen. He takes a course of action to break Blanche down and prevent that.”
Stella and Blanche were raised upper class on a Southern plantation called Belle Reve, French for beautiful dream. Stella left, but Blanche stayed on as relatives misbehaved and lost the family fortune and, eventually, the manor.
Besides the sad burden of tending to dying kin, Blanche acquired a few terrible secrets, one of them traumatic enough to create in her what today might be explained as post-traumatic stress disorder; that’s where a reminder of the original trauma can thrust the victim back into that moment. Whenever her late husband is mentioned, Blanche becomes ill.
PTSD is not part of Zarle’s interpretation, but it rang true to her.
Except, the actress does not think Blanche goes nuts. Vivien Leigh, who had bipolar disorder, truly did suffer a breakdown around the time she made the film.
Zarle sees Blanche as a survivor. Even when she’s backed into a corner, a harsh light trained on her sordid past, she’s not down for the count. She pulls out another trick from her bag: She tells the truth, a tale of woe, to her would-be fiance.
It’s an attempt to resnag him with sympathy, Zarle said.
“It’s the hardest scene for me to play. It’s the most painful moment for her.” Soon after, Blanche reverts to her fantasy world as a way to survive that pain.
For Zarle, “Streetcar” is quite a ride – every performance. The show runs about 2½ hours, and she’s onstage most of that time.
Like her character, Zarle survives a difficult thing minute to minute.
“I’m not thinking, oh my God, it’s this hard play I’m about to do. Or the emotional places I will eventually get to.
“All I do is get off the streetcar – and see what happens.”
What: Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” produced by Virginia Stage Company
Where: Wells Theatre, 108 E. Tazewell St., Norfolk
When: Opening tonight at 8; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 7 p.m. Tuesdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, through Feb. 5.
Tickets: $20 to $55, www.vastage.org, (757) 627-1234
Wells Grand Reopening: 6:30 p.m. today, with ribbon-cutting and live music.