Tennessee Williams would certainly relish the irony underlying A Streetcar Named Desire's canonical status.
Only three years before it blew the lid off the midcentury American theater scene, the playwright had been, as he put it, "snatched out of a virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence" thanks to the success of The Glass Menagerie. The very things which initially made Streetcar so incendiary and unexpected have long since become codified as expectations (and, in countless trickle-down imitations, outright clichés).
And that's ultimately what makes any new production of the play one of the top-drawer challenges of a theater artist's career. It goes far beyond what might be called the Brando syndrome. You often hear the claim that the performances in Elia Kazan's brilliant but bowdlerized film version — above all young Brando's volatile Stanley Kowalski — have left so powerful a stamp on the collective imagination that subsequent contenders are doomed to come off as faint echoes.
But the deeper, more pervasive challenge is to steer a convincing path for Streetcar in the face of entrenched ideas about the play as a whole — along with its characters' motivations — that have become as fossilized as Blanche DuBois' memories of "Belle Reve," her vanished ancestral home. The danger on one side is to veer in the direction of novelty for its own sake, which can easily distort Williams's signature lyricism so that it seems excessively precious and mannered. On the other, if you play it too safe, Streetcar tends to thin out into melodrama, punctuated by familiar thrills and resembling a theatrical theme park ride.
In her new production now playing at Intiman, director Sheila Daniels is clearly wary of these pitfalls and manages to avoid both. The theatrical intelligence at work here is undeniable in myriad details — particularly the physical language between the characters, which Daniels develops as a potent counterpoint to the raw intensity and rococo detours that are at loggerheads in Williams's script. In fact, the wordless moments possess an unusually charged vitality: Blanche's reaction to her sister's living quarters when she first arrives, or Stella's capitulation to Stanley after taking refuge with the neighbors upstairs.
This Streetcar offers numerous fresh moments of this sort, but what ultimately disappoints is the lack of a cumulative impact. Coupled with the uneven achievements of the cast, the result is a frustratingly prosaic and underwhelming show.
Bart Sher could hardly have given Daniels a more daunting assignment for her directorial debut with Intiman, where she was recently appointed associate director. Still, I was a bit surprised by how cautiously Daniels seems to tread here. A veteran of Seattle's fringe theater scene, Daniels has a well-earned reputation for incisive, thought-provoking theater. (Her three-actor version of Crime and Punishment at Capitol Hill Arts Center last year was a revelation.)
It's not that the show gets off to a slow start. On the contrary, this is a high-speed Steetcar. The swift pace of the opening scenes in particular strikes me as misjudged. It takes until the pivotal scene-six monolog that Blanche (Angela Pierce) delivers about her husband's suicide, during her date with Mitch (Tim True), for a differentiation of tempo to settle in.
And variety of tempo is crucial not only for the music of Williams's language but to make sense of the fundamental rift in the play: the stand-off between Stanley's (Jonno Roberts) cold realism and delusion — or "magic," as Blanche terms it — in the form of self-preserving lies as well as imaginative escape. Time has a markedly different character for Blanche, so that "an hour isn't just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped into our hands" as she muses to the newspaper collector (a finely etched vignette by Colin L. Byrne).
Pierce's Blanche is fidgety and nervous (the "moth" Williams describes in his play) but not over-the-top neurotic. She avoids the frequent trap of overplaying her from the start as an American Ophelia. Her Blanche is clearly determined to survive; both defensive and self-deprecating, she's always trying to calculate the best strategy as she adapts to unfamiliar, hostile surroundings. Pierce's interesting choice is to suggest a feistier Blanche who is more manipulative than delusional, which allows for more colorful, passionate interactions with the other characters. It's not so much her grip on reality as her grip on the bottle that weakens her.
What's missing (until her final breakdown) is a sense of the dangerous mix-up between illusion and reality that keeps Blanche in a continual state of panic, relieved only by the momentary connection with Mitch. True doesn't stray far from Karl Malden's clumsy, gentle-giant template, but his Mitch has real dimension. The two also play up an untapped vein of humor in their dating scene.
This Streetcar also fails to delineate the threat Blanche poses to Stanley. His cruelty, as a result, becomes disproportionately magnified — which I would argue is the production's weakest aspect. Roberts, a native of New Zealand, is a leering, snapping pit bull of a Stanley, perilously close to a feminist caricature of the role. From the first moment they meet, his contempt for Blanche is so obvious that there's little room for variation. In contrast, Roberts's needy, combustible rapport with his wife is more convincingly grounded.
Chelsey Rives makes an especially memorable impression with her unselfconsciously sexual Stella (often eclipsed by her sister's alternately sensual and sublimated postures). She represents another form of realism, an important and softening counterpart to her husband's brutal version. Blanche is typically thought to be drag for Tennessee Williams, but it's Stella who follows what was a sort of credo for the playwright, expressed in the advice given her at the end by her neighbor Eunice (in a nicely earthy turn by Shelley Reynolds): "Life has got to go on. No matter what happens, you've got to keep on going."
If there's an overall interpretation that emerges here, it's to underline that realistic grittiness. Thomas Lynch's marvelously detailed, vertical set presents a depressingly dilapidated hovel, including not just the kitchen sink but the run-down bathroom, with Eunice and her husband acting out in the apartment above like doppelgÃÂ¤ngers of the Kowalskis. L.B. Morse's lighting favors straightforwardness over "effects" that might suggest Blanche's inner world. Frances Kenny's costumes are delightful in how they accentuate Blanche's dignity and colorful style against the drabness surrounding her. Jose J. Gonzales (who also plays one of Stanley's poker buddies) contributes a score that more or less faithfully follows Williams's directions for an ongoing counterpoint of blues and popular melodies from the corner bar, occasionally taking a surrealistic turn.
Daniels also inserts some decidedly nonrealistic touches such as the various street characters and the doctor and nurse moving in Robert Wilson-esque slow motion behind the set, against a dreamy, shadow-casting backdrop (a hint of Camino Real?), but the effect seems contrived. In this showdown between the world as it is and Blanche's call for magic, the odds are clearly stacked from the start.