A Streetcar Named Desire opens the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Ana Reeder, Sam Rockwell in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Ana Reeder, Sam Rockwell in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Nikos Stage, June 22 – July 3, 2011

Directed by David Cromer

Scenic Design by Collette Pollard
Lighting Design by Heather Gilbert
Costume Design by Janice Pytel
Sound Design by Josh Schmidt
Original Music Composed by Josh Schmidt
Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis
Fight Direction by Thom Schall
Production Stage Manager, Davin DeSantis
Production Manager, Jeremiah Thies

Eunice Hubbell – Jennifer Engstrom
Blanche – Jessica Hecht
Stella – Ana Reeder
Stanely Kowalski – Sam Rockwell
Harold Mitchell (Mitch) – Daniel Stewart Sherman
Steve Hubbell – Lou Sumrall
Pablo Gonzales – Luis Vega
Doctor – Kirby Ward

Does it imply too much complacent comfort that I, only a few minutes into WTF’s compelling production of A Streeetcar Named Desire, leaned back and said to myself, “This is it. They’re on track. I’m just going to follow this along.” The first bit of business between the Negro Woman and Eunice, vividly played by Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jennifer Engstrom,  was magical, and it stayed that way throughout the entire production. The Williamstown Theatre Festival, under its new Artistic Director, Jenny Gersten, could not have gotten off to a better start: a great classic play in a great production. It was clearly intended to be a revisionist effort, with Sam Rockwell’s entirely un-Brando-like Stanley, and its claustrophobic set, crammed with the banal accoutrements of American life in the late 1940s. But after Omar Sangare’s treatment only a few months ago on the same stage, it seemed conventional, not to the detriment of either production.

Collette Pollard had the idea of setting up the stage in a narrow box,  parallel to the proscenium, with an onstage contingent of the audience viewing from the opposite direction. The pretty much uncut play flowed on at a healthy pace, not that any scenes were rushed. On the contrary, David Cromer presented the Williams’ text in meticulous detail, and the production was all the better for it. We all know that summer productions can afford less time for rehearsal than a New York production, On or Off-Broadway, but it was only mildly and occasionally noticeable here. In fact the boxed-in set gave the actors very little room to manoeuvre, and there were some virtuosic bits of action in very tight quarters, as when the poker boys get a little rowdy or Stanley beats Stella. I never thought of the set as a fish tank during the performance, but some might well take it that way. The actors entered from the back to stage left, where the entrance to the building was, with the Kowalskis in the back for the audience in the front of the house, and the stairway to the landlady’s second floor apartment in front.. In this way we could see Blanche’s understairs bed in the foreground and the Kowalskis’ freer space in front. The stairway itself had its important moments in this packed set, for example when Stella is spirited up to the Hubbells after the beating Stanley gave her.

Cromer’s revisionism was most significant in the way the set forced the characters together into tight groups, rather than allowing them space to drift apart, as in the traditional designs based on Jo Mielziner’s original, as well as in Sam Rockwell’s repellent Stanley, totally devoid of any Brando-esque sex appeal and seething with all of his worst vices—his selfishness, his rage and violence, his bestial instinct to destroy whoever threatens him either through deeds or through simply being beyond his comprehension—all apart from his table manners…Rockwell’s Stanley is more in harmony with contemporary ideas of masculinity—or machismo—with none of the lower-class mystique that has stuck to the role since Brando.

It is not all that rare that one extraordinary performance, especially when it can be recorded on film or some other medium, can take hold of a character and wrest him from the hands of his creator—not that Brando got Stanley wrong; Williams clearly found something arousing and fascinating in Stanley, as well as recognizing his ferocious powers of human destruction, which is what Cromer and Rockwell emphasized. Such people, as Williams knew from experience, are like a force of nature in their passion and force in destroying what is alien and mysterious to them. This production makes it absolutely clear that Stanley, however deficient he may be, is fighting for what is dearest to him, as well as what he regards as his chattel. In a way, you can’t blame him, although a more developed man would not have allowed his sexual attraction to Blanche mingle with his repulsion for the strange and threatening to unleash his raw desire to wipe her out…perhaps.

The two most impressive qualities of Cromer’s production, among many other admirable touches, is the attention he devoted to secondary roles, using actors entirely equal to them and giving them scope to express themselves, and the balance he observed between characters and the forces they embodied in the story. Stanley’s beating of his pregnant wife was extremely violent and shocking, and our experience of it is complex, because we realize that our repsonse to it is psychologically different from Eunice’s and above all Blanche’s. Stanley’s reconciliatory approach to Stella was carefully managed, so that, although we never sympathize with Stanley, we understand her willingness to reconcile and perhaps even the nature of her genuine love for him. We see later that Stella is a strong woman who can stand up to her brutish husband, Blanche, and anyone else.

The production shines in her strength of character and makes her the focus of the tragic denouement. Caught between her love for her husband and her sister, she has no choice, not only because of the mortal enmity between her loves, but because Blanche, who has stayed close to the roots of their moral inheritance, is entirely unmanageable within the social milieu of her life with Kowalski. Human habitations for Williams are like Dante’s circles of hell. Life on a Mississippi estate may not be all that much better than the filthy apartment the Kowalskis rent from the Hubbells, but hotels are worse, and we hear of a really bad one, and mental asylums lie somewhere around Satan’s bowels. That is all that is left for Blanche, with all the good will that any decent human being can muster, as Jennifer Engstrom’s wrenching portrayal of Eunice’s kindly intended deceit communicates and the very end of the play.

When I see a play for review, I always ask myself what the performance is like as ensemble work. I forgot to ask myself that question during this Streetcar. It never occurred to me. And subsequent reflection confirmed that that was because it was close to perfect. Cromer produced a seemingly natural, spontaneous flow of interaction among his players, and absolutely none of the cast were weak. In fact everyone had a chance to make a deep individual impression, and everyone brought it off flawlessly, without demanding undue attention or doing anything too obvious. Local accents were observed and done well enough. They convinced one not only of the milieu, but of different personal manners of expression—one of Williams’ special skills—based on their particular background and education. Ana Reeder’s Stella nicely bridged the linguistic gap between Blanche and the others. In other words, high praise to all and everyone in the cast.

Jessica Hecht in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.
Jessica Hecht in a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo T. Charles Erickson.

Even the young Brando’s charisma could not unseat Blanche as the central role, nor could the fact that the tragic conflict resides in her sister. Blanche’s fate was sealed long ago, and she ended as she arrived, so she has no peripeteia in store. Passing a subtle line from what is accepted as sanity to the opposite is not a radical change for her. Even if she could conceal her past, the progress of age is inevitable, and the damage to her psyche has already been done, before Stanley’s malice and the conventionality of her circle pushed her over the brink. Jessica Hecht, who has earned warm respect in classical theater in New York and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, outdid herself as Blanche, giving a potent, constantly fascinating portrayal, but never upstaging any of her colleagues. Much to her credit, she was constantly listening to the others, and constantly interacting with them in the most sensitive ways. With her tall, slender figure either neatly balanced above her heels in her genteel, almost grande dame-like manner, or writhing about in seductive or tortured curves, she balanced the ambiguity between Blanche’s created persona and the sordid reality of her life. She makes us fully aware of Blanche’s difficulty in carrying on her balancing act, as well as her natural propensity for it. She is manipulative and possibly even dangerous, although she remains largely sympathetic, after we get over her thoughtless attempts to upend her sister’s life. Blanche is never really dangerous, because she is no match even for the simple, brutal prejudices of common humanity. I especially admired her careful attention to the peculiarities of Blanche’s speech, although at first I thought it perhaps a bit overgroomed. Hecht used a style—that reached its height in the 1960s as cultivated especially by Harold Pinter and Jonathan Miller—of emphasizing certain phrases by speaking them out in an emphatic but neutral tone, cutting them off from the natural flow of her expression. I eventually got used to it, and I thought it particularly effective in bringing out Blanche’s pedantry, as well as the weakness of her grip on normal human communication. As it is, there was no one with whom she could comfortably converse either in Stella’s world or anywhere after her fatal contact with what Williams presented as the world of the damned—for her, in any case. Back then, when she married the handsome boy, that was when she blindly walked into her fate.

Over course there were laughs among the audience, none compromising the seriousness of production. Hecht’s performance was so inventive, detailed, and larger than life than it suggested other ways to treat the play, including a comic one. Even now there are still discoveries to be made in Streetcar.

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