A great play is immutable, yet keeps changing. Actually, what changes is the times, and we in them. Each time we see a classic, we perceive it differently. Catching the initial, 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire in Boston during its pre-Broadway tryout, I wrote such an ecstatic review that the Harvard Advocate refused to print it and dropped me as its drama critic.
At the time, I thought Blanche was the angelic heroine, Stanley a colorful beast, and everyone else touchingly mundane. Later, I met Tennessee Williams, who tried to persuade me that Blanche wasn’t so wonderful, and that of all the actresses only Gee Gee James, in a tiny part, was truly interesting. And that we must sympathize more with Stanley, who is desperately defending his territory against a dangerous invader.
Sure enough, when eventually Uta Hagen and Anthony Quinn took over from Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando, Streetcar became a rather different play. And so ever since, through a variety of productions. But, of course, as one grows older, one feels more compassion for the simple, sensual Stella, and the nice mother’s boy Mitch, who turns mean when his illusions are shattered. One recognizes the problematic contradictions in both Blanche and Stanley, and accepts them both.
And still other things change. What does it mean, we now wonder, that the young homosexual that Blanche married, and who killed himself, is spoken of as a “degenerate”? Was Williams merely portraying the values of 1947, or was this an expression of self-disgust and a justification of Stanley’s brutality? Does an artistic temperament lead to promiscuity in a woman and effeminacy in a man? Who is right: the elitist or the common man, the exquisite loser or the crass survivor?
We now have a new young artistic director at the Hartford Stage Company, Michael Wilson, who begins with a Streetcar he previously staged at Houston’s Alley Theatre, where he was second in command. (He has brought some of his actors and designers with him.) Once again the play looked quite different to me, as if turned into a Grand Guignol, what with the crowd of exotic extras, the strange lights going on and off during Blanche’s intense moments, the fiendish roar of trains at climactic points, the ghostly piano blues, and so on.
But consulting the text shows that most of that is in the script. Wilson does obtrude, though, with a half-hour introductory jazz concert that is supererogatory, even if Cheryl Alexander is a very winning performer. Some of that time could have been better spent on keeping in more stuff that has been cut. Especially shortchanged is Mitch, who, in Robert Clohessey’s otherwise effective performance, isn’t even physically large enough. Conversely, Alyssa Bresnahan, though a compelling Stella, shows no trace of an aristocratic background, and all but towers over Blanche, which is visually unsettling.
Wilson has staged most of the scenes strikingly, but the blocking misfires in places, notably the bit with the young collector, the one where Mitch drags Blanche under a harshly revealing bare lightbulb, and the one where the famous line “Sometimes – there’s God – so quickly!” is delivered by Blanche sitting on her bed with Mitch squatting nearby. Oddly enough, her other great line, her last, also falls somewhat flat. But the rest registers powerfully, thanks also to the two leads.
James Colby is the best Stanley in years because he allows the character his ordinariness. Not trying to demonize him or – as some have done – poeticize him, he gives us a common but not unduly vulgar man, with brightness and obtuseness intermingled. Similarly, Annalee Jefferies finds a way of making Blanche neither too ladylike and martyred nor too hysterical and demented, but something much better: in equal measure moving and irritating. For sheer earthy believableness you cannot beat these actors, and the poetry is left, correctly, for Williams’s lines to supply.
The upstairs couple is played by black actors, which works handily, with Lisa Leguillou an especially solid Eunice. Jeff Cowie’s set, Tom Broecker’s costumes, Michael Lincoln’s lighting, and John Gromada’s music and sound all contribute handsomely, and history itself lends a helping hand. When Stanley is wising up Stella about how sexually notorious “Dame Blanche” is in her home town, he says, “She’s as famous in Laurel as if she was the president of the United States.” The audience howls.
Incidentally, isn’t it interesting that three of the most celebrated American plays – by Williams, Miller, and O’Neill – all have salesmen for protagonists?