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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

A Streetcar Named Desire
That is Well Worth Riding

Also see Bob's review of Poetic License and Herringbone

A Streetcar Named Desire
Gregory Derelian and Laila Robins
Tennessee Williams' poetic A Streetcar Named Desire stands near the pinnacle of great American plays. Its Shakespeare Festival revival is powered by an exceptionally insightful and passionate performance by Laila Robins. Robins reveals to an extraordinary degree the complex, multiple facets of the faded and failing Blanche DuBois. For all her pretense, manipulation and debauchery, there remains in Robins' Blanche a transcending, tenaciously childlike innocence and decency which is heartbreaking.

The time is May, 1947. The setting is a ratty two-room apartment in a poor, raffish neighborhood in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The apartment is home to the vital, but beer swilling and brutish, Stanley Kowalski and his compliant and accepting wife Stella. Stella's sister, Blanche DuBois, who has been a school teacher in their family's hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, arrives for an extended visit along with a steamer trunk which seems to contain all of her possessions. The condescending Blanche, who parades about with the airs of a genteel Southern belle, is repelled by the squalor of the apartment and the very persona of her brother-in-law.

Blanche brings with her a tale of woe. After the then-teenaged Stella had left Mississippi to establish a life for herself in New Orleans, Blanche tended to their remaining family until the last had died. Thereafter, Blanche lost the family estate Belle Reve as the result of indebtedness incurred through their mismanagement of it. The strain of it all left her with "bad nerves" because of which her school has given her a leave of absence.

Stanley gets it into his head that Blanche has prospered from the sale of Belle Reve. He pulls the tattered old furs, faded clothing and cheap costume jewelry from Blanche's trunk and accuses her of stealing the estate from Stella (which he says belongs to him under "the Napoleonic Code"). When he cannot be assuaged by her coquettish charm offense, Blanche gives him the estate papers which surely reveal that all was lost.

As spring turns into summer, Stanley seems to grudgingly accept Blanche's presence in his home. Blanche takes advantage of Stella and her hospitality. Daily, she spends hours in the bath in order to keep herself cool. After a losing night at cards, the upset, drunken Stanley assaults Stella. To Blanche's horror, Stella heeds Stanley's call to come back to bed with him. After a night of making love, all is right with them. The next day, Stella tells Blanche of the strong sexual passion which binds her to Stanley. Then Stanley overhears Blanche tell Stella that he is subhuman, a primitive ape, an animal. It is at this point that Stanley sets out with "deliberate cruelty" to destroy her.

While Blanche makes fruitless attempts to contact an oil-rich old suitor, whom she delusionally believes will bail her out of her situation, she seems to have a more realistic option in the form of Stanley's card-playing buddy and co-worker Mitch. Softer and more sensitive than Stanley, the single Mitch lives with and cares for his elderly mother. Calculatingly, Blanche plays the unsoiled virgin with Mitch in the hope that he will marry her. Despite this, Blanche cannot keep herself from attempting to seduce the clean cut youth who stops by the apartment to collect payment for a newspaper subscription.

By now, even those totally unfamiliar with A Streetcar Named Desire will be aware that Blanche had fallen far and hard prior to coming to New Orleans. The revelations to come are painful and powerful without ever straining credulity. After uncovering the pathetic truth about Blanche, Stanley will expose her behavior to Mitch and Stella. Then, while Stella is in the hospital after giving birth to her first child, Stanley, telling her that "We've had this date since the beginning," brutally rapes Blanche, destroying what remained of her sanity.

Tennessee Williams and Laila Robbins collaborate to lay bare the soul of Blanche DuBois. Their Blanche combines a wild wanton sexuality with a core of genteel sexual innocence; deliberate, self-serving dissembling with a true belief in the fantasies into which she escapes; and snobbish, self-centered behavior with true concern for others. Political correctness notwithstanding, their Blanche is, in part, the architect of Stanley's rape of her. Furthermore, it is manifestly clear that, decades earlier, both circumstance and her own failings combined to set her on the road to her tragic fate.

Gregory Derelian portrays Stanley in a straightforward manner. There is little humor in his questioning of Blanche as to the disposition of Belle Reve. His brutishness is circumscribed. While Derelian's Stanley is not exactly a nice guy, he is a lot nicer than others I have seen. While my favorite line in Streetcar is that above all else, "deliberate cruelty is not forgivable," as interpreted by director Bonnie J. Monte and Derelian and Robins, Stanley's behavior is to a certain degree forgiven by Stanley's need to protect his home and marriage and Blanche's complicity in his rape of her. While the broad-chested, muscular Derelian certainly looks the masculine hunk, he would do well to bring out more of Stanley's "animal magnetism."

Nisi Sturgis is both most engaging and perfectly cast as Stella. I mention the latter because she is the picture of a little sister of Robins' Blanche. This brings extra clarity to the fact that these sisters are far more alike than either will ever recognize. Robert Clohessy conveys the kindness and decency, and the eventual angry confusion and hurt of Mitch effortlessly. Wendy Barrie-Wilson brings a sense of solidity and strength to the role of Eunice, the Kowalski's upstairs neighbor and landlady. While there are no weak links in the large cast, David Villalobos (Pablo Gonzales) and Yolande Bavan (Negro Woman/ Mexican Woman) make particularly strong impressions.

The detailed set of the house and apartment and the distinctive New Orleans neighborhood is the work of Harry Feiner. Credit the always appropriate and evocative costumes to Hugh Hanson.

Director Bonnie J. Monte has done outstanding work by illuminating facets of Streetcar's characters with a rare depth and complexity. Monte has placed more emphasis on Williams' realism than on the poetic elements of his play.

You will be well rewarded if you get over to Madison and take a ride on this A Streetcar Named Desire It is a three-hour journey that seems to pass in half that time.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m.) through October 5, 2008 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams; directed by Bonnie J. Monte
Cast
Stanley Kowalski………………………….Gregory Derelian
Harold "Mitch" Mitchell…………………...Robert Clohessy
Stella Kowalski………………………………….Nisi Sturgis
Eunice Hubbell……………………….Wendy Barrie-Wilson
Negro Woman/ Mexican Woman……………Yolande Bavan
Blanche DuBois………………………………...Laila Robins
Steve Hubbell………………………………...Brent Langdon
Pablo Gonzales…………………………….David Villalobos
A Young Collector………………………………Justin Clark
Doctor……………………………………………..Jon Barker
Nurse……………………………………..Megan Irene Davis


Photo: ©Gerry Goodstein


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- Bob Rendell



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