The Two Chairs Theatre Company’ s ‘Streetcar’ plays through Sept. 11.
“Justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior.” —Plato
Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is now on track at The Players Theatre. This Two Chairs Theatre Company production is not a rehash of the Elia Kazan movie. It’s a fiercely original take on Williams’ fierce play. The drama that unfolds is surprisingly philosophical. It’s war between the two sides of human nature—animal lust vs. angelic aspiration. The side Williams takes is surprising as well.
Williams’ play unfolds in 1947 New Orleans. The Confederacy had been defeated as a state, but not as a state of mind. This South of soul was built on a simple theory …
Simply put: some people are better than others. The upper class was a better class of people. The nobility was noble; the common people were, well, common. Noble people rule their desires and set their minds on spiritual things. Ignoble people were ruled by their desires. They lust for the things of this earth like the beasts of the field. A beautiful dream, at least for the Southern gentry.
The play’s heroine, Blanche DuBois (Alana Opie), is an aristocratic angel who’s fallen from grace. She lands, not in hell, but a tenement in the French Quarter. Blanche winds up as a charity case, sharing a two-room flat with her sister Stella (Lauren Ward) and her low-class husband, Stanley Kowalski (Chris Hines). Trying to add a little grace, Blanche quotes poetry and puts up a Chinese lantern. Brutal Stanley quotes the “Napoleonic Code” and tears the lantern down. Stanley’s convinced she’s not as angelic as she seems and starts making phone calls.
Stanley finds out that Blanche had fought to hold on to her family plantation—Belle Reve. Thanks to the sins (and debts) of a series of fathers, she slowly lost it. Her luck seemed to change when she married a pure young man. But he turned out to be gay, and killed himself when she rejected him. After that, Blanche got a room at a cheap hotel, and indulged her own lustful nature. She lost her teaching job when she bedded a 17-year-old boy. Before long, she was losing her mind—and on her way to New Orleans.
Stanley throws the ugly truth in her face. He gives her suitor, Mitch (Allen Kretschmar), a dose of the same truth and drives him away. Blanche’s last thread of sanity snaps. Stella makes a phone call and a doctor and nurse show up. The streetcar takes Blanche away to the insane asylum.
Director Elliott Raines’ production avoids any echo of the Elia Kazan film. He finds his own rhythms, his own truth and his own take.
Opie’s Blanche isn’t doing a Vivien Leigh imitation. Her character’s not simply a doomed romantic; she’s mentally ill. For her Blanche, romanticism is a form of self-medication against her inner terrors. Hines’ Stanley isn’t aping Brando, either. He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but he’s not the ape in a sleeveless t-shirt of the 1951 movie, either. It’s an oddly sympathetic characterization. In Stanley’s mind, he’s a pragmatist and a realist in a world of nutty dreamers. You can see his point of view. Kretschmar’s Mitch, on the other hand, is less sympathetic than usual. He shows you the cold calculus behind Mitch’s attraction to Blanche—the cruelty when he holds her face to the light like a farmer inspecting a horse’s teeth before buying. Sticking to the play’s original ending, Ward’s Stella doesn’t leave Stanley. Another vote for the reality principle—and animal desire over family loyalty. You can see Mitch and Stella’s perspective as well.
So who’s right? Whose side does Williams really take?
Raines fresh interpretation suggests a not-so-dreamy possibility.
Desire kicks Blanche out of her Southern Belle heaven. A streetcar named desire takes her to a hellish New Orleans. Her words are poetry. She longs for beautiful dreams; true or not, they should be true. Stanley barks and slaps like the brute he is. Blanche is right; Stanley’s wrong. That’s the obvious take, and the one I’ve seen in every other production.
Like it or not, Raines lets you see through Stanley’s eyes. He makes Blanche’s desire for brutish Stanley clearer than I’ve ever seen it portrayed. Significantly, Stanley doesn’t rape Blanche in the end. Their consummation is consensual.
It’s a brave directorial choice—and a hint at the ambiguity nested in Williams’ play.
A hint that human beings aren’t angels. And that low-down desire nests in the hearts of upper-class good folks and low-down proletariats alike. Denying that desire leads to suicides, loss of fortune and loss of face. The dream that some folks are better than others is not so beautiful after all. Live in that dream, and ugly realities like slavery result.
Sometimes, the ape-man has a point.