"A Streetcar Named Desire" rolls unsteadily at Norfolk's Virginia Stage Company
By Mal Vincent
January 27, 2017
There is a fateful moment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” when Blanche Dubois is defeated. Still tragically hopeful, she says: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
It is one of the great exits in theater history. It is a chilling moment.
The fact that it is not so chilling these nights at the Wells Theatre suggests what is wrong with this latest local production of “Streetcar.” The essence of tragedy is a downfall from nobility. Williams masterfully lays out Blanche’s downward spiral .
She represents the dreams of elegance, social standing, education, the arts, refinement and a world lost – gone with the wind. Lost as much as Belle Reve, her ancestral home.
The loss of that plantation, her husband, her job, her status – and more – has forced her to move to New Orleans to stay with her younger sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, in a small, hot, shabby place. She annoys Stanley and threatens his home – his castle – by urging Stella to leave him, and he sets out to ruin her. Her high ideals and the mask of delusion she wears can’t compete with the reality of the Kowalskis’ present and her tattered past.
As portrayed in a woefully uneven manner by Brandy Zarle, Blanche lacks the timidity, elegance and frailty to suggest her past nobility. What we get is a sordid melodrama about a woman who is nutty and something of a sexual aggressor. In a play centered on the conflict between fantasy and reality, fantasy is given little credence. You might think that Blanche’s nobility never existed – not even in her fantasies. If you think that way, you have a tragic world and a crazy woman, but not a great play.
Zarle doesn’t make us feel the grace of Blanche, so her fall is from a rather low height, and familiar lines that should resonate feel more like throwaways.
When Blanche faces her brute of a brother-in-law with a broken beer bottle in hand, you get the idea she might be able to handle him in two falls out of three.
Even so, we do feel the cruel reality when he tells her, when she’s utterly vulnerable, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning.”
There are many ways to stage “Streetcar.” That is part of what makes it is a universal masterpiece. I have talked with audience members who side with Stanley and have little regard for the faded illusions of Blanche.
But one way to ruin “Streetcar” is to play Blanche too crazy from the first. Her mental disintegration should be gradual. She’s up against it, but she still quotes poetry and gets solace from soaking in a tub or remembering the days when beaus called regularly to court her. She begins more disillusioned than crazed, but as the odds build against her we should see her desperation grow. Here, we don’t.
A delicate balance must be struck regarding how strong or weak to play Blanche, and when. The leading lady here has appropriate fire in the scenes that require strength, but seems lost when it comes to the nuances of vulnerability. She is most inadequate when she calls on a sort of instant craziness late in the game and resorts to nervous flailing of the air – as if mental instability could be ordered up from a fast-food restaurant.
Also miscast, although not as harmfully, is a charismatic Jenny Strassburg as Stella, the one who ran away to marry her Polish stud and get those “colored lights” sparking in their bed.
Stella should be earthy – and used. Rather than fighting the vulgarities of the world, she has learned to live with them. Strassburg is too young for the part. Still, her performance shows variation as we learn how Stanley pulled her down from the white columns of Belle Reve.
The men fare better in the casting. Jeff Barry is perhaps a little less of a brute than Stanley is sometimes played, but he brings sufficient testosterone and lack of couth.
Nathan Hinton captures enough of the lonely Everyman quality of Mitch, the friend of Stanley’s who might be Blanche’s last chance.
The set design, attributed to Narelle Sissons, is somewhat silly in its preponderance of hanging laundry. (Is it washday down in New Orleans?) The expansive staging works against what should be a feeling that these four characters are trapped.
The humor is there – such as when Stanley yells for Blanche to get out of the bathroom. She suggests he have a patient soul, and he says: “It’s not my soul, it’s my kidneys I’m worried about.” Or her observance that a shot never did any harm to a Coke.
But tragedy must be built – in the case of Blanche, from frailty to desperation. The frailty is missing.
Blanche represents the seeking of refinement and intelligence, and our heart goes out to her. Her loss is ours.
It’s too bad that it’s not fully realized in this production.