A Different Desire

When a venerable professor I studied playwrighting under in college described what it was like to be at New York's Barrymore Theatre on the night of December 3, 1947, he would talk as much about what happened in the audience as he would about what happened on the stage:

A Streetcar Named Desire (which the Alley is currently reviving) opened that night, and while it was clear to the audience that the newly emergent playwright Tennessee Williams wanted their sympathies to be with Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle of a lost soul who cries, "I don't want realism. I want magic!" it was also clear to them that the newly emergent actor Marlon Brando wanted their sympathies to be with Stanley Kowalski, the hulking brute he portrayed. There was nervous excitement in the audience that night, and the realization that theater history was being made, not only because of what Williams had created in Blanche, but also because of what Brando had created in Stanley. The sensitive heroine and the sensitive actor: whom, the audience wondered, should they value most?

The audience felt for Blanche, but they rooted for Brando's Stanley, all the while knowing that, as written, he was a villain. A villain with a certain manly charm, maybe, but a villain nonetheless. While the audience understood Williams' belief that it's the "tenderer feelings" that people must cling to if humanity is to progress -- as a pleading Blanche asserts to her sister Stella, who forsook their refinement to marry the "common" Stanley -- the audience likewise understood the power not simply of Stanley's carnal bestiality, but also (and more so) of Brando's animal magnetism. Brando the brooder, the audience marveled -- and worried -- made Stanley even more compellingly dangerous than he was on the page.

(This is largely why, when it came time for the movie, Williams and director Elia Kazan rewrote the ending, stressing Blanche's declaration, "Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable." In the play, after Stanley rapes Blanche, the final scene ends with Blanche being escorted via "the kindness of strangers" to an insane asylum. Meanwhile, Stella, who has just revealed that she "couldn't believe [Blanche's] story and go on living with Stanley," sobs with "inhuman abandon," wondering just what she has done to her sister, and acting ambivalently toward Stanley's attempts to comfort her. Mostly because of Brando, what the audience took away from those closing moments varied. In the movie, with Brando reprising his role, Stella refuses to go back to Stanley, disdaining, finally, his raw appeal.)

In the Alley production, the audience's allegiance won't be similarly tested. Patrick St. Esprit's Stanley is a fine physical specimen -- when he takes off his shirt, his stomach is so tight that ripples can be detected in the audience as much as in his muscles -- but there's not much else that's likable in the character he creates. But while Williams and Kazan would agree with the thrust of St. Esprit's intentions, they wouldn't be fully satisfied with his execution.

St. Esprit's Stanley is territorial, primitive and unconcealed, all of which establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. But Stanley as Williams wrote him is more like a force of nature; volatile and tactile, he's a potent physical presence who thinks by reacting. St. Esprit is unable to locate what should be throbbing in him, and as a result, key moments lack pulsating life. St. Esprit's Stanley goes through Blanche's clothes trunk with stubborn insistence rather than with an instinctive sense of defending what he intuits is his own inferiority. He throws out an offending radio Stella and Blanche have been listening to as if he's actually upset with them for ruining his poker game, when what he should be doing is betraying how "subhuman" Stanley is. And for all his swaggering, St. Esprit doesn't especially smack of testosterone; while his hunkiness might account for Stella's attraction to him, it neither reinforces how sheer desire binds him to her nor provides the perilous sexual tension that should exist between him and Blanche. "We had this date with each other from the beginning," Stanley seethes as he's about to rape her, but in St. Esprit, we never sense how deadly serious a flirt Stanley can be.

Though St. Esprit's workmanlike performance allows the production to be weighted in Blanche's favor, it's puzzling why the Alley, which prides itself on being a resident acting company, would bring him in in the first place, when one of its own actors is perfect for the role. All virile bearing and coiled emotions, Alex Allen Morris would make an undeniable Stanley. That Morris is African-American would, I think, provide audiences with valuable fodder for debate. But even if one wanted to argue that "colorblind" casting wouldn't work here, and that theoretical casting choices are irrelevant, it's still curious that the Alley is even mounting this very familiar classic. Streetcar was revived on Broadway a few seasons ago; the director's cut of the movie recently played in art houses; a network television version of the Broadway revival was broadcast just a few months ago.

The reason for the choice, apparently, is that the Alley wanted to reward one of its resident actors. It would seem that for Annalee Jefferies, who's so moving at being vulnerable, Blanche is an ideal role. And sure enough, her Blanche is a fine-spun creation who, as Williams writes, never lies in her heart, no matter how much she lives in illusions. At turns graceful and desperate, Jefferies is particularly touching delivering Blanche's revelations, such as when she's angry, sad and guilt-ridden when recounting how her long-ago marriage to her young "delicate" husband ended, or when she musters perverse satisfaction while admitting that at one point she was indeed a resident of the Flamingo, a hotel with the most unseemly of reputations. When she's alone with her character, Jefferies is hauntingly doomed.

But it's her interactions with others that prevents Jefferies from reaching the tragic heights of her Harper in Angels in America and her Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending, two of the most affecting performances I've ever seen. While she struggles in palpable dread at Stanley's incipient rape, her descent into madness is missing. As Stanley chips away at her ethereal veneer, she should become more and more fragile, but she doesn't. A bit too weathered to be precarious, Jefferies' Blanche seems at her wit's end more than at the end of her rope. Much of what beguiles in Streetcar is how tantalizing Blanche is -- with beau Mitch, the awkward mama's boy whose "great capacity for devotion" ultimately doesn't include her; with a teenage paper boy who rouses illicit longings within her; with Stella, a form of what can be called her craven self; and with Stanley, her antithesis. But Jefferies doesn't weave tenuous spells as much as she gets tangled in them.

The cast is in part responsible for the production's having feeling but not true intimacy or poetry (Alyssa Bresnahan is more voluptuous in body than persona as Stella, and James Black, though somewhat better, is more stuntedly constricted than painfully sincere as Mitch), but so is director Michael Wilson, who would rather play up technical considerations than establish the passion of pure human exposure. A few of his machinations are startling, such as ending Act One with a glaring white light shining on Blanche as she rapturously says to Mitch, whose affections at this point she thinks she has won, "Sometimes there's God so quickly." But most of his machinations are intrusive, as when the French Quarter riffraff comes to a screeching halt upon Blanche's initial entrance.

The riffraff are as important to Wilson as anything else, which encapsulates the production's biggest problem. Though Williams calls for symbolic use of a torch singer, sailors, vendors, whores, transvestites and freaks, they should reflect what's going on with the principal cast; as Wilson has it, it's the other way around. This inversion frequently warps the text and always distracts from it. So determined is Wilson to have outside forces impact upon things that a combination heartbeat/boiling kettle/levitation music is only one of the many shrill sound effects that deafen the action. Even Blanche's rape and its final impact can't be heard over the din.

Wilson and his cast should have attended to Jeff Cowie, whose set is, as usual, stunningly evocative. But the person who best illuminates Streetcar is lighting designer Michael Lincoln. One small example: the spotlight that shines on Blanche while she recounts how she lost her beloved plantation home keeps decapitating her courtesy of a ceiling fan, and Stella meanwhile is divided in the shadows cast from wooden shutters.

(A final note: with this review, I give up my regular aisle seat. I've enjoyed the run.)

A Streetcar Named Desire plays through April 27 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.

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Peter Szatmary