A Streetcar named Desire
MICA’s young Rivals of the West company takes on Streetcar
Published: April 6, 2011
A Streetcar named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
April 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and April 10 at 2 p.m. at MICA BBox Theater.
You might think that asking undergraduates to crawl into the rather adult skins of alcoholism, class anxiety, and sexual tensions found in some of the plays of Tennessee Williams is a little too much. And you’d be right. There’s just something about the taste of failure, personal compromise, and the resignation of self-delusion that hasn’t entirely invaded young people that might keep some of the more maudlin recesses of Williams’ work a little remote. So what’s noteworthy about the MICA undergraduate company Rivals of the West’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire isn’t that it doesn’t capture all of the play’s sometimes overbearing melodrama; what’s impressive is just how close the production comes to getting there.
Christopher Shipley, chair of the Language, Literature, and Culture Department, started Rivals of the West in 2009, growing out of his year-long class “The Play’s the Thing.” That class’ students handle every aspect of the play’s production—front- and backstage, from publicity to costume, props to stage construction—and for three years running now the students have put together commendable versions of some standard fare: Hair in 2009, A Midsummer’s Night Dream in 2010. This year Rivals has doubled its efforts, staging Streetcar in honor of Williams’ centenary, and following it up with Amiri Baraka’s racially fraught Dutchman April 14-17. The Age of Aquarius and Shakespeare these plays are not.
Streetcar, of course, is the sexually charged clash between one Blanche DuBois (Allie Stephens) and her sister Stella’s (Meghan Morrison) husband, Stanley Kowalski (Will Grenier). Blanche considers herself a proper Southern Belle, a high school English teacher who prides herself on her upstanding civility and upbringing, the product of a genteel Southern plantation in Laurel, Miss. Stanley is a working-class cretin who talks loud, treats women as crudely as the words he chooses, smokes and drinks almost constantly, and in general acts the alpha-male fool even though he knows he can’t really function without Stella. Stanley and Stella maintain a volatile relationship, and it’s into their lives that Blanche arrives over one steamy New Orleans summer.
Unsurprisingly, Rivals once again delivers an impressive set. Kel Millionie and the stage crew created a two-room flat that nicely approximates the French Quarter’s mix of former grandeur and somehow-still-standing dilapidation. Walls rise and then end in crumbling plaster, as if they’ve been exposed to the elements. The gold(ish) and tobacco-hued wallpaper looks crumbling and perhaps even humidity warped. Windows’ shutter slats are no longer parallel, each trying to choose its own way as much as the characters play. Hardwood floors creek and groan under foot; beer after beer after beer gets pulled from the period-appropriate icebox.
And if you missed the 2009 Cate Blanchett-starring Sydney Theatre Company production of Streetcar at the Kennedy Center, or it’s been awhile since you’ve watched the 1951 Elia Kazan-directed movie adaptation that catapulted Marlon Brando to stardom, it’s easy to forget just how boozey the play is. When Blanche arrives at Stanley and Stella’s, she finds the sauce for a quick nip before Stella arrives and proceeds to fix her a drink. Stanley and his boys—such as Mitch (Owen Rocosky), who becomes Blanche’s suitor—drink beer and take shots almost constantly, which leads to many a drunken argument and Stanley slapping Stella. These are adults who aren’t drinking to forget or drinking to celebrate or drinking to oblivion—it’s just part of who they are. In fact, what Blanche and Stanley do in Streetcar isn’t drinking at all—it’s maintenance.
And that level of pickled normalcy is a hard situation to portray without the life experience to support it, no matter how skilled the acting. So while there’s an intensity to the barely restrained desperation that’s missing from Rivals’ Streetcar, what thorny tensions it does achieve it pulls off thanks to a pair of strong performances. Grenier appears to genuinely recognize the flesh-wrapped id that is Stanley, perhaps because Williams created a character that isn’t too far removed from boilerplate teenaged template for macho American masculinity. Grenier convincingly bites into the way Stanley uses words as fists and the way he turns to his fists when words confuse him, and he’s smart enough not to turn Stanley into a straight-out caveman.
Stephens has a tougher road to travel with Blanche, who spends the entire play trying not to lose grip on an already tattered sense of sanity. Stephens winningly affects a musical Southern lilt to her speech—no idea if it’s natural, but some of Williams’ lines would sound downright awful in an American accent that wasn’t affluent Southern—and gamely bounces between Blanche’s many moods: wily temptress, courtly lady, cornered animal.
The biggest quibble with the production: Perhaps this set of ears is merely scarred by decades of rock club abuse, but at times you kinda wished everyone would speak with a little more conviction. Even in the BBOX’s intimate setting, sometimes the voices didn’t project as confidently as they could have.
> Email Bret McCabe