Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown: That’s What Williams Wrote. Deal With It.

Directed by David Cromer.
Starring Sam Rockwell as Stanley Kowalski, Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois, Ana Reeder as Stella, and Daniel Stewart Sherman as Mitch.

Kerry and I saw it on the day it closed. So this review will be a message that goes out into the universe, to those who can no longer see the performances. That is the beauty and difficulty of live theatre. To quote John Gielgud, live theatre is a “sculpture in snow”. But does that make it any less real? Any less important? No. Laurette Taylor as Amanda in Glass Menagerie in 1946, a performance that very few people still alive saw, changed American theatre. There is no record of it.

Because Streetcar, unlike Glass Menagerie, was made into a now-classic film (yes, Glass Menagerie was a movie, too, but who remembers it?) with Brando’s indelible performance burned into celluloid forever, comparisons are inevitable. Brando IS Stanley Kowalski, and actors have struggled to get out from underneath his shadow ever since. Interestingly enough, Brando isn’t really “right” for the part. He’s far too young, too beautiful, not the beefy brute who is on the page. Williams knew that, Kazan knew that, but they went with Brando anyway (thank God). It became Brando’s role, through and through – they allowed the play to have its own life, rather than just the life they had imagined in the planning stages. I’ve seen scenes from Streetcar in more acting classes than I can count, and it’s hilarious (and scary) but you can feel the ghost of Brando in the room every time. But if you read the play, just as a text, its brilliance and universality is nothing less than breathtaking. Scripts are sometimes difficult to read. Only a production can make it lift from the page. Streetcar is not one of those plays. I’ve read it and not once thought of Brando and how he said those lines. The play is bigger than Brando. To quote Lenin, Streetcar (and the role of Stanley) is just lying in the streets, waiting for someone to pick it up.

And Sam Rockwell just picked it up at Williamstown. The whole cast picked it up. It is a testament to what Williams wrote: that good actors, solid smart actors, can take such a well-known play and perform it to such a degree that you never once think of Vivien Leigh or Marlon Brando. Because, believe me, I’ve seen the opposite: I’ve seen dreadful performances – or okay performances – where the potential in the play hovers on the outskirts, Brando and Leigh and Kazan inserting themselves into it, the memories of the movie between ME and the play before me. But from the first couple of moments of Cromer’s production, with its tremendously cramped set (you really really get the sense of how on top of each other these people are in that space, it became unbearable), I relaxed. The story took over. Comparisons vanished from my mind.

Rockwell’s Stanley was a wiry little pitbull of a guy, rock-hard tattooed muscles, and sweat-drenched hair. He didn’t have to swagger and strut to prove his Alpha Male status (a trap that many lesser actors get into with Stanley). It was his house, his wife, he had no need to prove himself. He was King of the Walk. Indisputable. It’s interesting because Sam Rockwell has spoken before about how often he plays “betas”, and how, of course, as a male, he wants to play the alphas. He spoke about this in the documentary about John Cazale, and how Cazale’s example helped him to accept the goldmine that is the Beta Male. “If you ask any actor, they’re gonna want to play Michael Corleone. They’re not gonna want to play Fredo.” So it was exhilarating to see Rockwell let the Alpha Male out of the bag. In a way, it was disgusting. A disgusting display of slovenly behavior, petty-tyrant bullshit, pouting and then exploding … Alpha Males unchecked are no great shakes (which was always Williams’ point with Stanley). But in no way, shape, or form was Sam Rockwell COMMENTING on Stanley Kowalski (another trap with the role – especially for so-called “enlightened” men, who want to “show” the brutality and comment on how awful it is). Rockwell is so good he is beyond ego. An actor with an ego (well, of course actors have egos – but I’m talking about something different – I am talking about the Ego that goes into overprotective overdrive when threatened) often approaches Stanley with some distance, wanting to clue the audience in that he, the actor, is not like Stanley. It’s a helluva role. Not everyone can do it. But Rockwell, down to his body language, his posture at the sink, the way he looked around his cramped house, the way he smacked Stella’s ass when he kissed her, inhabited Stanley as though he was born to it. And because of that … because of that … an extraordinary thing started to happen as I watched.

Now this is clear in the script, although Blanche’s drama often overtakes the other concerns on the stage. But I have rarely seen this particular element (which I will get to in a minute) shown so clearly. (Brando, of course, got it, but then again, he got everything. I’m talking about actors OTHER than Brando.) What I got from Sam Rockwell’s Stanley, throughout, was that the advent of Blanche into his little home was deeply disturbing to this simple man. It was disturbing because it started to impact his marriage to Stella, something that is obviously precious and important to him. Everything he does, everything, is not just because he can’t stand a “phony” like Blanche and he wants to rip her illusions to shreds. (This is often how it is played, but that’s not the whole picture.) Stanley is losing Stella, Stella’s alliance starts to shift to her sister, Stella starts to consider Blanche over Stanley, and this … this doesn’t just enrage him because he’s a tyrant. It scares him because he loves Stella. He probably isn’t faithful to Stella, and yes, he is a pig and a brute, but his relationship to Stella is his whole entire world, and Rockwell got that on such a deep level that you started to understand where he was coming from. This is how disorienting Streetcar is. This is how confrontational it is. Williams did not write about villains and victims. He wrote about human beings. Flawed, messy, selfish, occasionally divine humans. Stanley is included in that, too. Yes, Stanley the rapist is included in that. Blanche came into his house, she’s a horrible house guest, she hogs the bathroom, she spreads out, she puts on airs, yes, but she also has a piece of Stella’s heart … a piece that Stanley can’t access. And this is why he does what he does. Even the rape, as awful as it is, comes out of that emotional anxiety about losing his wife. Being able to portray such a complex (and yet simple) truth, without protecting himself the actor, is the definition of great live acting. The staging helped. The stage was small, the two rooms were the actual size that they probably would be in real life, so there really was no real “blocking” because people were constantly having to say “Excuse me” and push past each other, never able to walk in a straight line. The staging was so claustrophobic, and Blanche was so omnipresent, that I started to empathize with Stanley. Is this chick ever gonna leave? I can’t fuck my wife anymore as hard as I want to because that bitch is right in the next room. I can’t take a shit in the bathroom without her wrinkling her nose because she smells it. I can’t chase my wife around naked anymore and slap her ass, the way she likes, because Blanche is right there. All the time. His bullying of Blanche came out of a very logical place, then, and shows the brilliance of Williams’ character development. If Stanley just seems like a random brute who gets off on kicking wounded dogs, then … well, yeah, that’s one way to play it. But that’s not what Williams wrote.

Everyone in Streetcar, including Stanley, is on the edge. The stakes are just as high for Stanley as they are for Blanche.

He is losing his wife. He cannot lose his wife. He is not apathetic about Stella. He is caught up in an intertwined hot sex-dance with Stella, and he gets off on the fact that he pulled her down off her pedestal. He is proud of that. And Stella is no victim. She’s into him. She chose him.

Now let me talk a little bit about Stella. I wrote about this in-depth in my review of 1982′s Who Am I This Time?, a wonderful television movie starring Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken about a community theatre’s production of Streetcar. Susan Sarandon, a prissy unawakened woman, is chosen to play Stella. To obnoxiously quote myself in that old post, I wrote:

Blanche is, yes, a difficult part, and a bad Blanche can derail the whole thing. But the really challenging part, the key to the whole thing working, is Stella. Everyone wants to play Blanche, all there are out there are Blanches, but without a good Stella, Streetcar can’t work. Kazan had issues with Kim Hunter in the beginning, so did Tennessee Williams, she was too actor-ish, she pushed too much. She improved, but it goes to show you the challenges in that part. Blanche and Stanley are not the only leads. Stella is a lead as well. Is it enough for the actress to loll about in a negligee, pregnant? No, it is not enough. We must see how far she has fallen. We must see her degradation, her enslavement to sex (willing enslavement), and we must see around her, like an aura, the society girl she once was. If you don’t get THAT, then you don’t have Stella. It is a very very hard part.

And while I think Kim Hunter brought a neurotic level of anxious devotion to her husband in the film of Streetcar, she still didn’t nail it. This was partly because of the censorship issues of the time, and the downplaying of Stella’s sexual addiction to her husband. And, of course, the end of the movie has Stella saying to Stanley, “Don’t ever touch me again” and running upstairs to Eunice, the neighbor. A clear comforting signal to the audience that Stella would never return to that horrible brute. But that’s not how the play ends. Here is how the play ends.

[Stanley has gone out on the porch and stands at the foot of the steps looking at Stella.]

STANLEY [a bit uncertainly]:
Stella?

[She sobs with inhuman abandon. There is something luxurious in her complete surrender to crying now that her sister is gone.]

STANLEY [voluptuously, soothingly]:
Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love. [He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse.] Now, now, love. Now, love ….

[The luxurious sobbing, the sensual murmur fade away under the swelling music of the "blue piano" and the muted trumpet.]

STEVE.
This game is seven-card stud.

CURTAIN

While I believe in my heart that nothing will be the same for these two again (and that is their tragedy: Blanche’s tragedy is more obvious, more shattering – but the play is not a win for anyone), when he goes to the sex, she succumbs. Willingly. She loves this man. She says to Eunice, “I couldn’t believe her story and go on living with Stanley.”

Listen to that line.

You see why I think that Stella is the key to the entire thing. Stella is the one who CHOOSES oblivion. She CHOOSES ignorance. Against her better judgment, she decides to be able to “go on living with Stanley”. Her stakes could not be higher. I believe Stella does believe Blanche’s story, but she cannot live with that truth. She might as well say, “I couldn’t go on living with Stanley and live with myself if her story is true.” So she chooses to disbelieve, and thereby consigns her sister to a life of confinement in a psych ward. It’s fucking brutal.

And so no, all props to Kim Hunter having to play this dreadfully difficult part (the hardest part in the play, bar none): I have never seen a good Stella. I have never seen the Stella that Williams WROTE. Until this past weekend at Williamstown, with Ana Reeder’s extraordinary performance. When your Stella is strong, the whole play happens. Almost like clockwork. With a weak Stella, the play literally cannot be. It’s that strong a piece of work, that logical, that well-made … one weak element and the whole thing unravels. Who Am I This Time? understands that, but unfortunately most productions do not seem to understand that. More often than not, I have seen Stella played as a fussy hausfrau, bustling about, pregnant, clucking with worry and anxiety. A domesticated little bird, trying to keep the peace. I don’t mean to be dismissive because I realize how difficult the part is but I literally do not understand how you could choose THAT way to play that part. That’s why I say it’s hard. Actresses, without even realizing it, resort to safe cliches in order to protect themselves from the brutal reality of Stella. They can’t deal with it. They can’t deal with just how narcotized by sex this woman is. They can’t cope with the fact that at every moment of every day Stella is longing to be fucked. Forgive me for being crass, but that is what Williams wrote. She SAYS it, too. It’s in the language. This is not just a crazy interpretation on my part. Stella is drugged by how much dick she is getting. When she can’t “have it”, she falls apart. She probably has a huge sense of loss the second sex is over because she knows she’ll have to wait a little bit before she can have it again.

STELLA:
He’s on the road a good deal.

BLANCHE:
Oh. Travels?

STELLA:
Yes.

BLANCHE:
Good. I mean – isn’t it?

STELLA [half to herself]:
I can hardly stand it when he is away for a night …

BLANCHE:
Why, Stella!

STELLA:
When he’s away for a week I nearly go wild!

BLANCHE:
Gracious!

STELLA:
And when he comes back I cry on his lap like a baby …

In the Hollywood of the 1940s, a nice pregnant housewife being addicted (quite literally) to the sex she is having with her husband obviously couldn’t fly. So it’s played in a sort of swoon of love kind of way, a neurotic codependent thing … which also CAN work, but that’s not what Williams wrote. Stella and Stanley have lost themselves in a world of sex and eroticism and Blanche coming to stay has thrown everything out of whack. Not only is it a heat wave, but Stanley and Stella are probably suffering from withdrawal a little bit. Not having sex all the time is a huge sacrifice to these two. Stanley pleads with Stella near the end:

Stell, it’s gonna be all right after she goes and after you’ve had the baby. It’s gonna be all right again between you and me the way that it was. You remember the way that it was? Them nights we had together? God, honey, it’s gonna be sweet when we can make noise in the night the way that we used to and get the colored lights going with nobody’s sister behind the curtains to hear us!

It is this monologue that Rockwell tapped into and seemed to play the majority of his performance from, even in its childish rages, and tyrannical demands. He wants it to be back the way it was before. He wants everything to be “all right”.

Ana Reeder brought something to Stella that I have never before seen, and something I have ached to see. I didn’t just see an actress up there playing a part. I saw an intelligent person who had tapped into what the playwright wrote. And like I said: when you have a strong Stella, you have the whole thing. It is Stella who brings about the final tragedy. It is Stella who signs Blanche’s death certificate. It is Stella who chooses cruelty over kindness. And, worst of all, she knows it. She will never trust Stanley again. Not completely. It wouldn’t surprise me if Stella herself became a drunk, in order to push down the guilt over what she did. It will be unlivable. Reeder also tapped into the sex-thing with an abandon that took my breath away, and was equally exhilarating and disturbing. You felt her ache for sex at all times. Brave. Smart. Without that element, you do not understand Stanley’s despair and fear that he is losing her. Without that ache in Stella, he just seems like a brute who hates phonies. Ana Reeder allowed us to see the undercurrent of connection between these two characters, how deep those cables go, how private and sick their little world is … and how letting a third into that circle is destabilizing to a violent degree.

Rockwell’s screaming “Stella” came out of a bolt of panic that he had messed it up with his woman, that she hated him, she wouldn’t come back to his arms. He acts on impulse, he’s a brute and a bully, but Stella leaving him is terrifying. Believe it or not, I hadn’t really considered the question before about whether or not such a display had happened before? In this production, it seemed to me that no, this has not happened before. Yes, he plays poker with his friends, gets too drunk, and he’s probably roughed Stella up before. Stella describes their wedding night and how he went around smashing all the light bulbs in the room. But the fact of Blanche’s presence in his house has upped his tension, his held-back rage, and hitting his pregnant wife in front of his friends is too much for even those rough rough guys. And Stella running away from him, upstairs, may have happened before as well – as she waits for him to cool off … but there was something in the way the scene played that made it seem like every character on that stage was walking into new waters here … that things were falling apart. Quickly. Stanley is in a PANIC. Stella’s fighting back was new, and perhaps Blanche is to blame? What the hell has happened to his marriage? Rockwell’s mix of rage and tears and childish demands that “Stelllllaaaaaaa” come down to him were filled with PANIC. He crumpled into a ball at the foot of the stairs, sobbing. Little boy. And that’s the hook for our Miss Stella. It is irresistible to her. That is where she finds her strength: in magnanimous forgiveness, which then turns into the hottest tenderest sex she has ever had in her life.

Cromer made that explicit in Stella’s return down the stairs into the arms of her drunk sobbing husband. It’s in Williams’ famous stage directions as well, but Brando’s performance is so famous, so definitive, that to really enter into that scene is a daunting challenge. No one wants to be compared to someone else. Here’s how Williams describes the moment:

[Stella slips down the rickety stairs in her robe. Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans. He falls to his knees on the step and presses his face to her belly, curving a little with maternity. Her eyes go blind with tenderness as she catches his head and raises him level with her. He snatches the screen door open and lifts her off her feet and bears her into the flat.]

“Her eyes go blind with tenderness.” Blind, indeed. There is a small scene following that between Blanche and Mitch, chatting on the steps. But because the stage at Williamstown is so small, you could still see the rest of the dark flat, with Rockwell and Reeder in bed. As the scene with Blanche and Mitch played out, Rockwell and Reeder were in bed, in the shadows, and she was pulling his shorts off, and the two were lost in one another, moaning and breathing and sighing, her legs wrapped around his back. Meanwhile, out on the porch, Blanche and Mitch talk. The scene ends with Blanche murmuring, “There’s so much – so much confusion in the world.” I don’t think I ever even heard or understood that line, except in a vague way. It got a huge laugh in this production, over the absurdity of it, and that seemed to me to be beautifully right. Here, with the sounds of passionate lovemaking surging through the air from right over there, a room away, as Mitch and Blanche have a formal courtly conversation, trying to ignore the sounds they hear … Kerry and I looked at each other, and Kerry mouthed, “OhmyGOD.” Because that’s what it would be like. That is exactly what is going on in that moment. Hearing other people having passionate sex is one of the weirdest and potentially most alienating experiences on earth, especially if you are feeling lonely and sad. This is how Blanche has been living ever since she arrived at her sister’s house. Huddled in the fold-out bed in the kitchen, listening to that in the other room.

I don’t know why but I never really got that until I saw Cromer’s staging of that moment. You could have plunged the rest of the stage into total darkness and have Rockwell and Reeder exit in the black. I’ve seen it done that way. I suppose some directors feel that the “STELLAAAAA” moment is the climax and anything afterwards is a denouement. But that’s the point: it’s all part of a flow and it explains everything about the relationship. Stanley hits his pregnant wife, she runs away, he falls apart, she comes back to him, and they fuck all night long. So Cromer didn’t have them stop at “Stellaaaaa” – He had their scene, post “Stellllaaaaa”, still going on onstage, still surging, one continuum …

All of this would be difficult to imagine with a fussy hausfrau Stella, as I have seen it played. Ana Reeder’s desperation for her husband’s hands on her was embarrassing to watch. They were completely private up there. It was almost ikky. Who wants to see that? To repeat my broken record: And that is what Williams wrote.

The heartcrackingly wonderful Daniel Stewart Sherman played poor Mitch, the guy with the sick mother who just wants to get married to a nice girl before his mother dies. He has the misfortune to meet Blanche. He is a gentleman, sort of, but he is a trapped man – one of Williams’ most incisive portraits of how trapped men can be by the double standard foisted upon them by conventional society. He believes Blanche’s stories about herself, the persona she puts out, and desires her because she seems untouched and a fluttery womanly belle. (The flip side of this coin, tragically, is that Blanche actually is a fluttery womanly belle, and no, she is not “untouched”, but does that mean she deserves the contempt of the world? Is this what we do to our most beautiful precious creatures?) Without any specific lines to explain his viewpoint, Sherman played Mitch as a man who sees sex as dirty, and something one does with whores. He has split women up into different groups. As long as he believes Blanche is what she says she is, then she deserves respect and dignity. But once he hears “the stories”, the contempt (which is actually self-loathing) comes out. He cannot see women as people, especially not women with a past. He can deal with Stella, because she is married and pregnant and therefore easily classifiable. (If he only knew that Stella found marriage the safest place to bring out the whore within! And Stanley, to his credit, doesn’t seem to have a problem reconciling that.) Mitch is trapped. Even Sherman’s body language told us how bound up this man was. He’s a big man. Mitch needs to be big. Sherman, encased in a suit for his date with Blanche, seems like a lost man, and, even with his flaws and weaknesses, is just looking for love. He’s not an evil guy. And his disillusionment over Blanche’s betrayal is the hurt of a little boy who realizes the princess has clay feet. The undercurrent of all of this is his fear about his mother dying. A true mamma’s boy, Sherman keeps all of these complex balls in the air, and at the very end, as Blanche was being subdued in the other room by the nurse, he suddenly burst into sobs, his head down on the table. It was heartwrenching. Such a man, sensitive and good, yet filled with self-loathing about sex, is a stranger in the world, as much as Blanche is … but because he’s a man, with all of the privilege that that confers, he is not as openly trapped. But make no mistake: Mitch is a mess. Things are not going to be all right for Mitch. He will never forget Blanche. He will never forget that instead of giving her kindness in her final moments of freedom, he gave her judgment and scorn and pain. He will never forgive himself for that. It would not surprise me at all if Mitch became extremely religious, in order to try to assuage his guilt over Blanche.

And now we come to Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois. She’s got big shoes to fill as well. In her first entrance, her voice seemed forced and flat – not a lot of ups and downs – and I wasn’t sure what that choice was about. It seemed deliberate. But I got into her rhythm, and succumbed to what I was seeing: the Blanche up onstage, and not the one in my head, and not the memory of Vivien Leigh. Here is what I SO appreciated about Jessica Hecht’s performance, and Kerry and I talked about this on the way home. She got the artifice, the need to dress like a lady, to put on airs … and she managed to do this in a deeply human way, not like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But, and this is key, she also got Blanche’s streetsmarts, her coarseness, her practical nature. Tennessee Williams said that he had never written a victim. Unfortunately, most actresses take the opportunity to turn Blanche into a veritable madwoman, the ultimate victim of a cruel world. Yes, it is tragic what happens to her, but Blanche is NOT a victim. On the contrary. She is a survivor. She has been immersed in scandal, she has been fired for being inappropriate with a teenage student, she is haunted by her only cruel moment (screaming at her gay husband on the dance floor, leading to his suicide), and since then it has been downhill. She lost the family plantation, and has been holed up in a shady hotel, living off the men who come to her to sleep with her. She entertains soldiers from a nearby military base. She slept with everyone in town. Desperate. The scandal became so intense that she was run out of town. She has nowhere to go, so she goes to Stella’s. A woman with shameful secrets, she is shocked at how Stella is living. She still has the snobbery of being raised as a debutante, something that Stella has given up entirely. Her obsession with cleanliness makes perfect sense. A woman who was raised to be a lady has become a whore. Her illusions about herself are not indications of her madness, I don’t think. They are indications that her humanity has not been killed yet. She wants to believe that she is still worth something, that she still could find love. And why not? Who are we to say that Blanche doesn’t deserve love? (It reminds me of that great little exchange in Bull Durham when the trampy woman is getting married and she says to Susan Sarandon anxiously, “Do you think I deserve to wear white?” And Sarandon replies, “Honey, we all deserve to wear white.”) I think of Blanche sitting in that bathtub for hours on end, and while I understand Stanley’s rage that he can’t go in there (he has that funny line about how Blanche is ruining his kidneys), I ache for her, and how dirty she feels. She is one of God’s children, she deserves love and kindness just as much as the next person, but the world is brutal to its “sensitives” (as Williams called them).

You could play her obsession with cleanliness as some sort of OCD mania. But that is condescending. How about playing it as obsession with cleanliness because she has fallen so far, and she just wants to feel CLEAN again? Will she ever feel clean again?

There are those who see vulnerability and scorn it as weakness. Williams was never one of those people. The fact that vulnerability hadn’t been bashed out of him is just a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Kazan always said that people’s vulnerabilities are their STRONGEST points, NOT their weakest.

And here’s the rub with other actresses who have played Blanche. Not all of them, but many of them. Modern-day actresses are a part and parcel of their time just like anyone else, and many of them see Blanche’s vulnerabilities as weaknesses, so they play them as such. They flutter and whisper and get panicked and breathless, turning up the psychotic fire licking at Blanche’s heels. Now, this is obviously part of the character. She does, after all, go mad. But if you listen to the language in the first scene she has alone with Stanley … this is NOT an idiot madwoman, panicked and fearful when faced with someone strong. Absolutely not. She looks at Stanley, recognizes she has met her match, she understands him even better than Stella does, and she meets him straightup in that scene. She does not hover and flutter and cower. Jessica Hecht’s Blanche stood her ground. I had never seen that scene played that way before. Not only is it (broken record) what Williams wrote, but it was FUNNY. Jessica Hecht’s Blanche was FUNNY.

Her Southern Belle airs ARE airs. She KNOWS that. It is how she survives. It is how she believes she still has a chance to get a good man to marry her. Women tell little lies about themselves all the time and most of the time we know we are doing it. (You know, saying, “I’m not really hungry” when on a first date. Every man knows this is bullshit, every woman knows this is bullshit, but the SMART man buys the lie, the SMART man understands that he should be flattered and not scornful of her little white lie. You want to get laid? Play the game a little bit nicer and maybe you’ll get lucky next time. We need to be kind to one another about our little illusions and white lies. Sometimes they are what help us to actually survive.) Blanche, her lies catching up with her, realizes that the Southern belle mode will not work with Stanley, so she drops it COMPLETELY in that first scene. It’s fascinating to watch.

STANLEY:
If I didn’t know that you was my wife’s sister I’d get ideas about you!

BLANCHE:
Such as what!

STANLEY:
Don’t play so dumb. You know what!

BLANCHE [she puts the atomizer on the table]:
All right. Cards on the table. That suits me. [She turns to Stanley.] I know I fib a good deal. After all, a woman’s charm is fifty per cent illusion, but when a thing is important I tell the truth, and this is the truth: I haven’t cheated my sister or you or anyone else as long as I have lived.

Blanche being dragged out of the house by a doctor with a hypodermic needle often hovers over the entire action of the play, and I suppose that is inevitable, since it’s such a well-known play. We all know the end. But this goes back to what I have said before, that you must not play the end in the beginning of the play. Too many actresses enter as Blanche telegraphing to the audience, “I am going to go cuh-raaaaaay-zee at the end!” And therefore, we don’t get the stakes, and, ultimately, we don’t get the tragedy.

Tragedy occurs when you get the sense that, just as easily, events could have gone the other way. That is how we know it’s tragic, when we want to step into the action and start directing people to behave a certain way in order to divert the fate coming. If Stanley hadn’t told Mitch the scandalous stories about Blanche, would Mitch have proposed? I think he would have. And Blanche’s past could have remained her own little secret, and Mitch would be none the wiser. He would make a good husband, albeit a little dull, but dull would suit Blanche at this point in her life, and Blanche would have been safe and protected. But Stanley DOES tell Mitch, and from that point on, Blanche’s fate is sealed.

So playing Blanche as a psychotic upon her first entrance in the play is depriving Blanche of her courageous last stand to have a life of dignity and kindness. Yes, it is brutal. She is destroyed. And we have to watch, with the dreadful realization that this COULD have been stopped, and now … it can’t be stopped. Blanche is desperate, exhausted, and panicked, and also horrified at the conditions her little sister is living in. But she is nobody’s fool. She has been living by her wits, and doing the best she can, and sleeping with soldiers to put food on the table. She has clung to her possessions, her furs, her little tiaras, and yes, she drinks a bit to relax, but she’s not in full-on psychotic break until the final act. The FINAL ACT, people. That’s a long time to hold off your eventual crackup.

But dear actresses: if Blanche DuBois can stand it, then why can’t you? Can you be as brave, as strong, as Blanche DuBois?

Jessica Hecht can stand it. Her humor as Blanche (she got so many laughs, it was incredible to watch, it illuminated a whole other side of Williams’ script to me) was that much more awful and sad, because you saw what a great person she was, how capable, how much of an ASSET she would be to our world.

The “kindness of strangers” line is so quoted as to be almost a cliche now, and Cromer managed to find an elegant and piercing way to make that moment come alive. Throughout the play, every time Blanche walks through the cramped kitchen, she would say to the men sitting at the table, “Don’t get up” even though not one of them made any move to get up for a lady. The repetition of the “Don’t get up” line, and the blatant disregard the men showed her, ended up being funny in a way, although sad. Blanche wants to be around gentlemen, men who would NEVER remain seated when a woman walks into the room. However, this is not her reality, so Jessica Hecht would just breeze through the space, saying, “Don’t get up”, as THOUGH they had all went to stand. It ends up feeling like a condemnation of their lack of manners, yet she would never lash out like that. A simple “don’t get up” is enough. But during that brutal final scene, when the doctor and the psych-ward matron subdue her, Hecht was thrashing about on the bed, the matron saying that chilling line: “Her fingernails will have to be cut.”

Williams’ stage directions then read:

He takes off his hat and now he becomes personalized. The unhuman quality goes. His voice is gentle and reassuring as he crosses to Blanche and crouches in front of her. As he speaks her name, her terror subsides a little. The lurid reflections fade from the walls, the inhuman cries and noises die out and her own hoarse crying is calmed.]

DOCTOR;
Miss DuBois.

That’s pretty clear what the moment is about. Kindness of strangers. In the bedroom was a dangling bare light bulb, and when the doctor slowly removed his hat, the light went on (or maybe it was on before, but then it became brighter, blinding almost), and everything came to a total standstill. His removal of the hat was deliberate and graceful, a moment of good manners and gentlemanly grace that had been so noticeably absent throughout the play. It was a theatricalized moment, which I really liked. (Liked? I was weeping uncontrollably.) But I liked Cromer’s choice to really pull that moment out, to make a “bit” out of it, a breather, a moment of grace and clarity. The doctor, in that slow sweep of his hat off his head, right beneath the blinding bare lightbulb, suddenly seemed like an angel. Literally. An angel of kindness in the most unlikely of places. A savior. A kind heart, who takes the time to treat another human being with dignity.

What would the world be like if all of us, routinely, were “kind to strangers”? I don’t think there can be any debate that it would be a nicer place to live.

Streetcar is not for the weak-hearted. It is relentless.

Ana Reeder’s shattered response to her sister being taken away was so filled with guilt that I found myself looking away from her, and when she was subdued by the embrace of her husband it was devastating. Devastating. Her surrender to Stanley’s embrace suddenly seemed like the surrender of a weak animal to the strong, a total giving up … and Stanley’s no dummy. He will not be happy with this new surrendered weak Stella. He has lost her. Rightly so, I suppose, but Streetcar doesn’t let the audience off the hook. With Mitch crumpled in sobs at the table, and Stella and Stanley embracing to the side, Blanche, head held high, walked offstage, holding the doctor’s arm … and I couldn’t help but think that Blanche got the best deal here.

At least she lives in truth.

At least she has been kind.

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40 Responses to Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown: That’s What Williams Wrote. Deal With It.

  1. Bill says:

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you for your report on this performance. The only other piece I’ve read about this production was dismissive, so your thoughtful and detailed post on the play and production is most appreciated.

  2. sheila says:

    Bill – did you get to see it?? I didn’t read any other reviews of it – so I am glad to add my little voice to the chattering. I thought it was great. I was exhausted at the end of it.

    • Bill says:

      Hi, Sheila, I was brought back to your post by a commendatory link at the All That Chat discussion board and just saw your question. I didn’t get to see the performance, but the director and performers were/are of interest. Your vivid report is more than adequate compensation for now. If Cromer gets another opportunity to tackle the play, I’ll do my best to be there. Thanks again for your post as well as the ongoing discussion in the comments section.

      • sheila says:

        Bill – my pleasure! It’s been a couple of weeks now and I am STILL thinking about the play and how Cromer did it.

  3. This was excellent, not only your review of the Williamstown play, but the close analysis of the script itself as a backdrop. Your writing is exquisite.

  4. Greg says:

    This piece – review doesn’t seem to give it the gravitas it deserves – is GLORIOUS. Your understanding of the script along with your amazing analysis of this production is outstanding and only makes me wish I hadn’t missed it. Thank you.

  5. sheila says:

    Thank you everyone! It is such a testament to the play itself that it could still be so evocative, no matter how many times I have seen it, and that Kerry and I would be talking about it for 2 hours straight on our way home. Amazing stuff.

  6. Maria says:

    Hot damn!! That’s a good review. And, yes, I’m thinking of your play. The havoc of sex is in the air.

  7. Rachel says:

    This was quite a ride. It’s a treat to get a review that looks hard at every single performance and gives them their full due.

    Sam Rockwell is great, isn’t he? I saw him recently in Conviction (an okay movie, I thought, but nothing special) and he had the supporting role of the heroine’s brother, the man she was trying to prove innocent. And he took this pretty unpleasant, immature character, a guy who’s clearly destined to be one of life’s losers and I could not take my eyes off him when he was on screen. He made you feel for that guy and everything he was losing out on. I’m sure all that experience carving out good supporting roles helped him with Stanley. An actor who’s used to having to fight for the audience’s attention isn’t going to hold back on a part like that.

    I remember reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of a Broadway performance of Streetcar (it was the Natasha Richardson/John C. Reilly one). He made the point that so many people go for the simplistic tack of making Blanche the symbol of Beauty/Artifice and Stanley as the Brute/Honesty (I’m paraphrasing here). He went on to say that you can’t just turn Blanche into some kind of beautiful victim. In fact, it’s Blanche’s ability to survive, to still be seeking beauty and pleasure in spite of all her problems, that makes her admirable. He hated that production but his review was still fascinating because it really dug into the original play and its meanings.

    And of course, Blanche has got a hefty dose of practicality in her (she sizes Mitch up pretty fast and if circumstances had been different, I could see her getting him to the altar) and Stanley’s got his own share of poetry.

  8. alexandra says:

    I literally don’t know what to do with myself right now.

  9. sheila says:

    Alex – hahahahaha Love you. It was amazing- tell me your thoughts!!

  10. sheila says:

    Rachel – very nice thoughts. Yes, the play is so strong, so human … and polarizing it into specific themes kills much of the magic. They even had that in the original production when Kazan was worried that the show was becoming The Marlon Brando Show. If you actually read the script, it is CLEAR that Stanley is not the lead. He doesn’t get nearly as much stage time as Stella and Blanche do – He’s secondary. But Williams shrugged off Kazan’s worries – telling him to stop trying to control the thing. To let it stand, to let everyone on the stage be human and fighting for their lives. And if you leave out Blanche’s streetsmarts and her ability to manipulate/finesse men … if you make her a trembling flower – you’re not doing Blanche! You’re doing Summer and Smoke – different play, people!!

    I’ll look up that review you mention. Sounds very interesting.

  11. Kate says:

    Incredible review! I can’t stop thinking about this performance I didn’t see.

  12. george says:

    So I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the play; but I’ve just had the greatest delight in reading about it. Brava!

  13. Todd Restler says:

    Wow, hall-of fame post Sheila. I’ve only seen the movie, and now have an urgent desire to not just see it live, but even more so, I have to READ the thing. There is so much there that I didn’t get from the movie.

    Rockwell is terrific on screen, and sounds like he was here as well. To me he’s a “live wire”, unpredictable and hard to read, with tons of energy. I wish I could have seen this snow sculpture.

  14. Kerry says:

    What Sheila left out is that when Blanche says that she recognized that Stanley would be her executioner when she met him, some people in the audience laughed. But Sheila said out loud, “It’s true!!!” Out loud.

    Which I thought was hilarious. She was talking back to the stage. It was awesome. One of those you-had-to-be-there moments, but completely awesome.

  15. Cara Ellison says:

    I wanted this post to never end. Marvelous.

  16. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, thank you. Lucky you. Amazing piece.

  17. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Sheila, just reread the piece. What amazed me is how much we forget over the years, we assume we KNOW the play, right? Well, we really don’t. Going back to the source, to what he actually wrote, was so important and I’m so glad you brought us back to it. I love your take on things and the heart you put into your writing. Thank you.

  18. Greg Ferrara says:

    Wow, Sheila, great analysis of what I believe to be the greatest American play. I’ve seen good and bad and, unfortunately, I’ve seen more bad than good. The worst was a production in DC that I worked on (I did props) back in the eighties. The actor playing Mitch was very good and Stella was… okay. Blanche was very actorly but decent and then there was Stanley. Oh, dear lord, he was horrible. I got angry at every performance, watching him mangle the character to death as a big, hulking dumbo. You know the “dumb voice?” The voice people use when they want to make someone sound dumb? The voice of the Abominable Snowman in the Bugs Bunny cartoons (“I will hold him and squeeze him and I will call him ‘George’”)? You know, that voice?! That’s the voice he used as Stanley! His portrayal was MINDLESS! No fear of losing Stella, no craftiness at “getting” Blanche, no calculated brutality, nothing! Just a big dumbass walking around on the stage. I wanted to kill him.

    STREETCAR is an amazing play, worthy of the kind of performance you saw. I have always thought Sam Rockwell was terrific (especially in MOON) so I would have loved to have seen him in this.

    And you get STREETCAR. And I’m sooooooo glad! I love this play so much and it seems like few people seem to get how much is going on in the play and beautiful, just beautiful, is the poetry of Williams’ (in all his plays but especially here). This play is relentless. It’s punishing. And it’s beautiful as an act of creation on the part of Williams. In my opinion, no one’s written a play since that’s outdone it.

  19. sheila says:

    Greg – I am finally back online after a glorious week of NOT being online at all. Thanks for your awesome comment. Ugh, the “dumb Stanley” trap. It’s so condescending. So unimaginative. Yes, it is much easier to imagine Stanley as stupid … because then you don’t have to really deal with what the play is saying. You don’t have to deal with the fact that Stanley has a point: the most difficult truth of all. Rockwell just GOT it. I mean, he’s so good anyway – but he really got Stanley’s brutality AND Stanley’s common sense. He is a terrifying foe when he’s smart. Not book smart but smart about motivations and boundaries. He clocks Blanche as a phony (wrongly) and also clocks her as a giant threat to his marriage (rightly). The actor has to manage both of these things. Oh, it was so exciting to see the play really tackled and GOTTEN!!

    It’s such a masterpiece.

  20. Paul says:

    Just read your marvelous analysis of this great play and amazing production. I was lucky enough to see it a few weeks ago and your comments on the performances fully do them justice. Like you, I found Daniel Stewart Sherman’s Mitch a revelation. He really became the fourth lead for the first time in my experience seeing this play. He brought a level of heartbreak that I had never felt before about this character, something on the same level as that of Blanche. Which was what made their scene together by candlelight, when they share their personal troubles and losses, almost unbearably moving.

  21. sheila says:

    Paul – Oh my God that candlelit scene was incredible. I felt like the entire theatre was holding its breath. His hunched-over back (we were sitting where we couldn’t see his face) – and his stillness – as he took in her horrible story. He is a tragic figure and I agree with you: he became the 4th lead here. Most definitely. His breakdown at the end was heartrending because of the audience investment in him.

    • Paul says:

      That stage picture at the end, as Blanche is being led out of the apartment and has to pass through the tiny kitchen, of Mitch with his head down on the table covered by his arms in grief/guilt/regret/shame. It’s something I will never forget. It still wells up from time to time like some kind of personal sadness when I think of these characters and this production.

  22. sheila says:

    Incredible. I’m curious: where were you sitting? We were in the back row of the main section of seats, along the side of the theatre with the exit doors. Because the theatre is so small they were great seats – although that stairway going up was so thick it blocked everything that happened by the doorway – my only complaint with the set. We kept saying if it had only been a wrought iron stairwell we could have seen through it!! But I was curious about the other perspectives from other seats.

  23. sheila says:

    And yes – I ached for Mitch in that final moment. It was like I could suddenly see the whole rest of his life. He had made his choice, and now … he will have to endure the repercussions, spiritual and otherwise. His grief and shame were palpable – and for such a man, who wants to be good and kind, his actions will haunt him forever. Great stuff.

  24. sheila says:

    And I absolutely loved Eunice, the upstairs neighbor. Loved that actress and what she brought to it.

    • Paul says:

      Agree it was a phenomenal cast across the board. By dumb luck were were in the back 0f the four rows of stage seats right across from the bedroom which turned out to be primo – we could see and hear everything (except the appearances of the ghost of her husband above the set) and felt like flies on the wall of that tiny apartment.

  25. sheila says:

    What did you think of her fantasy made real – with the two naked boys on the bed? I was haunted by it – it was a really scary image to me for some reason. The stage was so dark and stark. A bold choice, I really thought it worked. Would be interested to hear your take.

    • Paul says:

      Funny I had the same reaction: fright. I first saw them in the bedroom and didn’t immediately recognize that it was her memory of coming in upon her husband in flagrante. I thought it was a manifestation of her erotic urges, i.e. a kind of orgy fantasy. But after my initial reaction I realized what it was and thought it worked. What was true genius on the part of Cromer was having every character repeat every other character’s line at the end creating the experience of the cacophony of voices in her head as she finally loses touch with reality.

  26. sheila says:

    Right – it walked that line. I thought it was a fantasy too (and that interpretation would also work – going along with her line to the young man at the door: “I need to stay away from young boys” – really shows her torment, how messed up in her mind she is – how time stopped for her when she was a teenage bride, and so she is still drawn to that age boy). But yes, the look on her face as she stared at the tableau was true horror – which just added to the odd and dark scene. I really liked that addition, thought it very inventive and totally right. A bold choice!

    And I respectfully disagree about the echo voices at the end – it was my only beef with the production (well, that and the thick stairwell I couldn’t see through – ha!!). Didn’t work for me at all.

  27. Bob says:

    Thank you so much for this review, it proves my feelings of regret that I couldn’t get up north to see what could have been the Best production of the play in our lifetime.

  28. sheila says:

    Bob – thank you for your kind words. I’ve seen the play so much that it is rare that I feel exhilarated by it – like I was at Williamstown. I came home and reread the script all over again, just so I could see it in its raw state again: words on the page.

  29. WOW! I have just been put through the wringer – and I wasn’t even *there* – but you make me feel as though I saw it all through your eyes, ears and heart!

    THANKS for this! If only more theater events were this powerful…

  30. Bill Young says:

    Who ARE you? This is brilliant! This made me understand the play and I could see the production you described and why it worked. I wish I could have seen it, and yet I almost don’t need to, because you’ve made it come alive for me. Thank you!

  31. sheila says:

    Bill Young – Ha!! Who am I? I’m just me – and I thank you so much for your response to what I have written! I know this piece has been linked to on a couple of Broadway chat boards and sites and I am so pleased at the response. I am so used to seeing Streetcar and feeling vaguely unsatisfied – even though the play itself is always strong. The play would work if people read it in a deadpan tone. But this particular production I didn’t think about being dissatisfied once – it was engaging, emotional, perfect, and I got totally lost in it. I only wish more people could have seen it! But that, like I said, is the glory of live theatre. Snow sculptures. Precious and yet temporary.

    Thanks again!!

  32. bawoman says:

    Well, I’m a bit late for the party but I had to tell you how much I loved your review! You seem to be as passionate about Streetcar as I am (never thought that was humanly possible). I never got to see this production,but it sounds a ,shall we say, enthralling. Sorry I missed it.
    One small point of dissent I had though, is that allthough Stella, and Stanley’s fear of lossing her did play a major part in his initial hostilities towards Blanche, I believe the actual rape had nothing to do with Stella at all. By that point, it became something much, much more personal. There’s a reason why Tennessee wrote Stanley raping Blanche AFTER he had secured Stella(by the birth of their baby), had secured Mitch (by exposing him to Blanche’s past)and had expeled Blanche from his home (after buying her the bus ticket). Stanley was on top of the world, he was clearly the winner when scene 10 starts. Blanche didn’t seem to be a threat to his family anymore.
    So why does he rape her? In my opinion, Blanche was the first person in his life to challenge him, to challenge his principles, to challenge everything he stood for. This got so far and under into Stanley’s skin because it stripped away the perfect image he had of his life, but much mpre importantly, of himself. Stanley was as utterly insecure as Blanche was, and I think he sensed he was missing something, something he didn’t quite understand, something that Blanche had that he didn’t. She was the constant reminder of every insecurity Stanley had lurking around in his unconscious. He defended himself by finding every insecurity Blanche had and using them to bring her down. By scene 10 though, that had not been enough for Stanley. He needed to bring down Blanche from her pedestal because he could’nt live in peace with the gnawing idea that maybe, just maybe, Blanche WAS above him, even if she HAD slept around, even if she had lied to everyone, even if she was a drunk. She was still up there, even if he had just destroyed any chance of peace and happiness she had had. And it killed him. So he brought her down to his level the only way he knew how. I agree Stella was important for the build up of the Stanley/Blanche battle,but I do think what both Stanley and Blanche were fighting for by the end ran much, much more deeper.
    Anyhoo, I love love love your blog, you have a great talent,and I can’t wait to reading alot more entries soon. Peace, and Happy Holidays!

  33. sheila says:

    bawoman – Glad you found the post! It is nice to hear from someone who has obviously thought about the play so deeply!

    // He needed to bring down Blanche from her pedestal because he could’nt live in peace with the gnawing idea that maybe, just maybe, Blanche WAS above him, even if she HAD slept around, even if she had lied to everyone, even if she was a drunk. //

    I like that interpretation a LOT.

  34. sheila says:

    And happy holidays to you too!

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