Streetcar Named Desire is perfect tale in today's world
(N.B. Writing via wi-fi on an i-Pad from California. How this transmits to blog remains to be seen.)
The famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) produces repertory plays from Winter through Autumn every year. But Billy Bard is not all they produce. Also many other scripts from various epochs and genres, including A Streecar Named Desire by American playwright Tennessee Williams first performed in 1947 that won a Pulitzer plus other notable awards.
Lead antagonist Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins) sums up the gist of the play in his condemnation of his sister-in-law Blanche Dubois (Kate Mulligan) near the plays's climax : "Your life is nothing but imagination, lies, conceits and tricks." Ouch. Tough stuff. Another way of putting the theme more universally might be : "We all have stories we believe in about ourselves. If we cleave to them too hard, we become neurotic. No story should become virtually all there is of us ."
Watching OSF's production of Streetcar Sunday reminded me of a comrade Southerner of Williams, Kentucky novelist Walker Percy. His indelible line from Love Among The Ruins put me to tears when first I read it and does so again: "What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past -- the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of." This is what Streetcar is all about, I think.
Blanche Dubois is the older sister of Stella Kowalski (Nell Geisslinger). Blanche has fallen on hard times. She is forced to decamp the family estate Belle Rive in Laurel, Mississippi and sets out to visit her long-distant younger sister in N'Awlins, LA where she lives with her husband Stanley in post-WW II America.
Blanche is a spinster southern belle who subscribes to the mythology of plantation life as described in Gone With The Wind. And claims such as birthright. Trouble is, Blanche is 90% phony in this respect : in truth she is a bewildered and bemused emotional waif ever since her first love of some 40 years back turned out to be a gay poet. Upon learning that Blanche has witnessed him making love to another man -- she tells him she now finds him disgusting -- he promptly runs outside the roadside dance hall they're partying at and blows his head off.
Blanche's response is to repress-repress-repress. She lands a job as a school teacher, but really her work is to take local soldiers encamped in Laurel, Mississippi to bed -- some presumably for money, others just buck shee. Her closing comment in the play of "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" takes on considerably more poignance in light of this info that emerges during the play. Including the fact that her teaching career ended abruptly when she tried to seduce a teen-age pupil.
To appreciate ASND, one needs to celebrate how much irony, paradox and ambiguity inform human conduct. Not only is it the case that "nothing is as it appears", but also that much of Western human conduct is predicated on projection -- claiming objectionable behaviour by others that really is little more than denying their own self-same shortcomings. There's also the fecundity of Southern writing : one surely feels that culture through Williams's well-wrought words, but we also smell, it, touch it, taste it as only Bourbon Street life can induce. "Thinking" about life in the manner of, say, a Philip Roth (Portnoy's Complaint) is a wholly secondary experience if it occurs with these folks at all.
As well, Streetcar is the perfect antidote for today's social media phenomena that rely on "instantaneity" for entree to life's meaning. Not this script. It's 150 minutes of investigation, development and expansion -- psychologically -- of people who, serially, are victim-believers of their times, their genders, and their moral confusion. Good luck trying to discuss such stuff with your typical teen-age Facebook Twitterer in 2013.
Backstory: Elder sister Blanche has lost the family plantation due to misfeasance thus foreclosure. She has also been ushered out of Laurel due to the myriad johns she has enticed into the semi-respectiable Flamingo Hotel where she's taken up lodgings -- all this unknown to sister Stella until Stanley's "acquaintances" cough up this up late in the play. Meanwhile Blanche has parachuted herself into Stella and Stanley's flat in NO as if she's on a short furlough, is all. Immediately Stanley and Blanche magnetize in their dislike of one another : he thinks her cheap; she calls him Polak though he's 1st generation proud and swaggering, beer-swilling poker-playing WW II vet.
Blanche exposes herself and her simple complexity with these kinds of statements : "People have to tolerate each other's habits, I guess." "Money is the way out." "Who knows what the dark march is toward whatever it is we're approaching." "When people are soft they have to shimmer...I'm fading now, I don't know how much longer I can turn the trick." "I don't want realism, I want magic." "I had many intimacies with strangers -- it was all I was able to fill my heart with." "Death's opposite is desire." Blanche flirts with everything, be it pants, mirror, or memory.
Mulligan succumbed to a bit of shrill predictability in Act 1 scolding her sister and parading her false southern belle persona, but she became progressively more convincing in her dreamscape delusions in the 2nd an 3rd acrs. A gutsy performance indeed.
As Stanley, Danforth Comins was just the right mix of macho grunting over card games with his buddies to his pushy insistences with Blanche to his crude tumescence with willing wife Stella. His rape of Blanche -- or possibly co-seduction -- as his wife gave birth to their daughter was, of course, shocking but hardly a surprise given Tennessee Williams' character portraits.
Suitor Mitch (Jeffrey King) played the Mr. Sincere Naive role with nuance and great sensitivity. Convincing and capable support by the rest of the Streetcar entourage, too.
But it was Geisslinger as Stella who stole this reviewer's heart with her action as the younger sister always having to apologize for and protect and accommodate her older impaired but still-lovable sibling, the delusional and alcoholic Blanche. At curtain call -- after just finishing a most heart-rending scene with repeated eruptions of "What have I done to my sister?" as Blanche is taken away to an asylum that caught my throat and heart and eye -- Geisslinger came on stage wiping a tear from her face. I don't think it was sweat. She had just aced a dramatic climax that she lived, not merely "acted" a la the Meryl Streep school.
On the production values side of the ledger, Director Christopher Liam Moore wrung from each actor every ounce of blood, sweat and tears he was able and all to good effect. Set and lighting by scene designer Christopher Acebo include a clever and impressionistic rendition of New Orleans iron railing lanais and spiral staircases that adorn even the most humble walk-up flats, with mood-lighting to suit perfectly.
The backdrop of sharp brass and muted coronet riffs by composer/sound designer Andre J. Pluess captures nicely the jazzy NO soundscape, but quite frankly the periodic steam-engine chug-a-chug-a interpolations between certain Stella/Blanche scenes fretted my aural nerve quite painfully. Ashland being this close to San Francisco, where-oh-where was the familiar clank-rattle-clang of streetcar clatter instead -- in keeping literally and figuratively with the Tenessee Williams script, motif and theme? A real puzzler that lapse.
That closing quibble aside, folks traveling through Cascadia this season will enjoy a profound theatrical evening with Streetcar in Ashland that is worth every ducat. To take some moments to reflect on what the personal stories we inflict and insist upon in life -- and what role they play in our destiny -- is always worthwhile.