Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Streetcar Named Desire"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


by Tennessee Williams

directed by Laura Schrader

Blanche … Lorna McKenzie
Stella … Noël Armstrong
Stanley … Angus Beasley
Mitch … James Laing
Eunice … Mary O’Donnell
Steve … Donald Pinnelle
Pablo … Rich Italiano
Neighbor Woman … Susan Harrington
Doctor … John Mills
Nurse … Patty Lieber
A Young Collector … Brian Giacometti
Street Musician/Mexican … Barbara Hunt

The Footlight Club ends its season with Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE --- to borrow a phrase from the program, its production is “amateur, but not amateurish” --- but attention, attention must be paid due to Lorna McKenzie’s fascinating portrayal of Blanche DuBois, Mr. Williams’ greatest female creation.

Recently I wrote, “Time, ever a playwright’s enemy, has not been kind to Mr. Williams’ art --- nowadays it is hard to believe that his plays were once considered (1) scandalous and (2) the dawning of post-war realism. Mr. Williams wrote in closeted times; the era shaped the artist --- he may not have had the power or the courage to bare his true heart and was forced to hide behind ladies’ skirts but, on the other hand, he may not have been as great had he written in more liberated times. (“Art is born of restraint and dies of freedom,” wrote Flaubert.) What remains are Mr. Williams’ words --- poetry, but dramatic poetry --- which continued to flow long after his talent had vanished, and a wise director will concentrate on those words, not the purple situations (that way parody lies).” Though she skimps on Mr. Williams’ poetry, Laura Schrader has directed and designed a good bread-and-butter evening, and she brings out all of the play’s humor (so often we forget that Mr. Williams can be funny). Her Blanche and Stanley may not sizzle when together nor does Daniell Brennan’s lighting capture the sweltering New Orleans atmosphere, but whenever Blanche goes solo or pairs with Stella, this STREETCAR makes for engrossing, albeit one-sided, theatre.

Stanley is a tricky role to pull off, not only because of the Brando iconography but because there’s nothing earthshaking nowadays about a man stripping to the waist (provided the actor playing him has the required sensuality, there’s no reason why Stanley has to be either a Calvin Klein hunk or the grunting ape as described by Blanche). In his notes to the original STREETCAR production, director Elia Kazan writes that Stanley’s key is his self-absorption; he’s the baby who yells when the nipple is pulled from his mouth. Unfortunately, Angus Beasley lacks the character’s animal magnetism and animal shrewdness (Stanley’s stud-ness has been thrust upon ‘im) --- whenever Mr. Beasley undresses, all we see is a tall, lanky Joe come home from the gym; if Blanche’s tiara is “next door to glass”, Mr. Beasley’s Stanley is next door to “Yo!” (Ms. Schrader allows Mr. Beasley to use rapper’s hand gestures whenever his Stanley gets serious.) James Laing is more creditable as Mitch; he’s a loser but at least a believable one. (Mitch’s brief, touching reunion with Blanche at the end of Scene Three has been omitted.)

The secondary role of Stella is a complex one: not only must she act as a sounding board, buffer and punching bag for her battling sister and husband, she must also reflect her own two worlds (the former belle and the future slattern) and display a healthy sexual appetite. Noël Armstrong makes a surprisingly tough Little Woman in her scenes with Stanley (having the neutral Mr. Beasley for her mate gives her Stella her own sexual power; for all we know, this Stanley could be her hired help); when she is with Blanche, Ms. Armstrong is properly gentle and supportive. One of the drawbacks of limited runs is that many actors ripen in their roles just in time for Closing Night; given a longer run, Ms. Armstrong might have blended her two Stellas together to become truly indelible.

Blanche DuBois --- a mercurial woman with as many facets and moods as Cleopatra (Mr. Kazan writes that there are eleven different Blanches in the play --- one for each scene). Audiences may come to check out how “hot” the Stanley may be but the play firmly belongs to this fading belle. Blanche is a figure (and symbol) of charm and grace from the dying Old South from which she has fled through Death’s back door; she is tragically out of place in the vulgar, red-blooded post-War South personified by her sweating brother-in-law. Considering that so much of Blanche’s character is composed of her own fabrication, an actress playing her needs to find Blanche’s center at once --- eleven Blanches, but ONE center --- otherwise, she’ll be nothing but an annoying in-law and the audience will side with Stanley, who has every reason in the world to resent her presence.

When Lorna McKenzie first entered as Blanche, I jotted down “And Toto, too!” because her hairstyle and chirpy manner resemble Billie Burke’s Glinda in THE WIZARD OF OZ, but Ms. McKenzie proceeded to win me over with her interpretation: her Blanche is not an hysterical old maid but a petted and pampered child still dependent upon the flatteries and attentions not of particular men but, rather, Man in general. Her restless fingering of Stanley, Mitch and the Young Collector may startle at first but soon makes perfect sense: not only does it lend credence to Blanche’s reputed nymphomania, but since her little girl is looking for the security of a daddy’s lap and her habit to flirt is so in-grained, she has fallen into beds she has unwittingly made up for herself (this is an astonishing innocent Blanche; even her lies come off as truths to her). Ms. McKenzie may strike some as playing only on the surface, all chatter and dash (I, too, would have preferred some deepening of the character), but in the end her playing rings true: that calm surface is the false serenity of a slowly turning whirlpool; this Blanche may have separated mind from body to survive the sordidness she has passed through but she is floating towards her destruction all the same. Prior to her rape, cowering against a wall, her child’s terror is truly harrowing --- she has met the “executioner” she herself has appointed --- and her breakdown is swift and sudden because she has finally reached the whirlpool’s center and is instantly sucked down. Mr. Williams might have wept at Ms. McKenzie’s achievement, seeing her not so much as Blanche but, rather, as his own beloved, tragic sister. Given a longer run, Ms. McKenzie may come to reveal Blanche’s troubling depths as well as her glowing surface, but we all know that Time never waits for a Williams heroine, so I urge you to attend the Footlight production before Ms. McKenzie’s performance, like that rattletrap streetcar, passes into the Elysian Fields.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" (6-21 June)
7A Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN, MA
1 (617) 524-3200

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