A Streetcar Named Desire at the Gate Theatre

November 4, 2013


“I don’t want realism, I want magic,” cries Blanche DuBois in perhaps the greatest play in the American canon, A Streetcar Named Desire. I swing both ways myself. A little bit of each and the sweltering sexuality and brutal swag of Tennessee Williams’ text can fizz like a well shook can of soda pop, the unbridled emotions filling the veins of the action and making it pulse. Ethan McSweeny’s confident show is a little too erudite to let that happen. But, even when muted, great writing can pull the rug out from under you to insure, at evenings end, you are still grappling with your senses.

A struggle for survival, Streetcar is a crushing dual between desperate romanticism and determined realism, where love, understanding and compassion are clucked and clattered by unwavering truth and indomitable self-preservation.

The refined DuBois has arrived at the New Orleans home of her sister Stella after the loss of the family plantation, setting up a colossal cock fight with her brutish brother in law Stanley, the blue blooded “king of the castle”. Circling each other with unconcealed disdain, he twigs her conceit that her shit don’t stink, and sets about rubbing her nose in it.

Feathers fly as Blanche and Stanley peck at the feed of the past, his status and her sullied name tossed to and fro. But as the damaged foundations of her psyche give way, and the profound understanding she has so longed for is scratched out, the consequences of deviating beyond the norm come home to roost.

DuBois is perhaps the closest Williams came to truly capturing himself in print. Like Blanche, he was a promiscuous lush whose sexual taste and appetite were at odds with moral America. He uses the battle between Stanley and Blanche as a metaphor for the crushing oppression of a society that treated women, gays and African Americans as second-class citizens. The frayed frustration and rising desperation spills across Tony award nominee Lia William’s face, who reveals her split seams in a turn that aches with anguish yet is overwrought from forethought.

She captures the mania of a woman battered by, but striving for life and occasionally the magnetism of a woman at the whim of her senses. She’s at her best in her tender moments with Dennis Conway’s Mitch (even though he is almost three decades too old for the part) where fragments of the tender and trusting girl crushed by deception and time, slips free. She finds the humanity crucial to making the character more than just a cautionary tale, but a person caught between the ever turning spokes of social mores.

But something is missing. The vulnerable but vital strength that should congeal all the above isn’t viscous enough to let Blanche exist as something other than a character in a play. She imitates femininity rather than possessing it, dramatising her allure so that her struggle never really becomes our struggle in the way that great acting stands apart from good.

McSweeney also does much to tame the plays earthy, barbaric edges. The use of period songs during the scene changes pegs the play in the past when time itself has done little to age it. While Dennis Clohesy’s saxophone score owes more to TVs Poirot than “the Blue Piano” of New Orleans, cutting the sauce of the city off from the meat of the text. The sound effects are often dreadful, as if played off a Casio Keyboard while most of the minor roles – Marion O’Dwyer, Steve Blount, Malcolm Adams, bring nothing to the table. (The one exception to the rule is Elizabeth Moynihan, memorable as the matron, a two-line part).

Paul Keogan makes interesting use of light to capture Blanches mental collapse, blinding us with flashing bulbs that call to mind the ugly glare of the press-the watchdogs of society, even if, at times, they overwhelm what’s going on in the scene. While Joan O Cleary’s costumes, particularly for Blanche, are delicate but worn with experience.

What’s really lacking in this production, though, is sex. There’s no spark between Lombard’s Stanley and Williams’ Blanche. Shock, repulsion, disgust and disdain are expressed but there is little charge between them and this lack of frisson can mean that the silences (where meaning so often lies in a Williams play) are leaden. They are from different worlds but driven by the same needs-for love, self-sustenance and preservation, so the tension should cackle not curdle.

Cold and calculating, Lombard is a mountain of brute force that intimidates all around him with his shit-eating smirk. But he is neither primal nor instinctual; his hurt contains no source wound. Words alight nothing in him and he takes pleasure from nothing when he should take pleasure in everything, even when he is being an unmitigated prick. His Stanley operates from the head instead of some bestial urge, which, though interesting, is not compelling enough to sustain the long course of the play. (It should be noted that the infamous “Stella” scene, where Lombard acts alone, is truly excellent so it could have been an issue of chemistry between the leads).

The one person who nails it is Catherine Walker, a beautifully nuanced Stella, who brings to life the sexual and sacrificial tragedy where others can’t. Her post-coital serenity after Stanley beats her shows us “the things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that make everything else unimportant” while the pure pleasure she emits while talking about him lends strength as to why he would feel so much loathing for Blanche, an overgrown child jealous of another kid in the playpen of his life.

Her actions and their cost at the plays end are unbearably horrible. In a show about survival and sacrifice, the dirt of the earth mucking out the twinkle of the stars, it’s Stella and the life she must now live that leaves the greatest impact.

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