Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire means exactly two things to most people: cracked and tarnished Southern belle Blanche DuBois advising the people escorting her to a mental hospital, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers," and macho Stanley Kowalski in a sweaty undershirt bellowing up a flight of stairs, "Stella!"
Just before last Sunday night's Arizona Theatre Company performance of Streetcar, people in the audience were yelling "Stella!" Even the stagehands had reportedly been doing it.
So Streetcar is usually seen as the interplay between Blanche and her brother-in-law, Stanley. Blanche, fleeing personal disgrace and financial ruin in her home town, has moved to New Orleans to live in a shabby two-room French Quarter apartment with her pregnant sister, Stella, and the animalistic Stanley. From the start, Blanche and Stanley circle each other and goad each other, and Stanley is ultimately the instrument of Blanche's downfall.
But notice that Blanche and Stanley are isolated from each other in those two famous lines--Blanche appealing to strangers, Stanley crying out for his abused but adored wife. And indeed, in this ATC production directed by Samantha K. Wyer, Streetcar does not ride Blanche and Stanley as equal, parallel rails.
As Williams points out, the two main streetcar lines serving the French Quarter are called Desire and Cemeteries. Blanche has suffered through the deaths of too many people she loved, and has been desperately taking a whirl around the ballroom with anyone she can snag, if only for a night. So instead of revolving around the dynamic between Blanche and Stanley, this production is all about Blanche's reluctant dance with death, which she fears is the only partner who'll have her.
Whether or not this concept is entirely intentional, it's promoted by the fact that Stephen Beach's Stanley Kowalski doesn't leave a lingering impression during the long periods when the character is offstage, whereas Katherine Clarvoe's Blanche is almost constantly before us, alternately disintegrating and pulling herself together, and her forceful personality haunts Kent Dorsey's terrific, grimy set even in the few moments Blanche is not physically present.
As Stanley, Beach can be interesting. Initially, his machismo seems little more than a put-on, a playful bantering technique with Stella. His later outbursts of what Blanche calls "animal force" are sudden, violent, but often followed by a well-concealed period of remorse; watching Beach, one can imagine what someone like Ed Harris would do in this role. But sometimes Beach seems to be working by rote, particularly during his bland recitation of Blanche's sins.
Clarvoe, on the other hand, offers a grand tour of Southern female pathology, and a compelling trip it is. There's so much packed into her first scene that it's hard to separate all the conflicting strands: She's manic and desperate, vain and judgmental, but her obvious efforts to control her streak of superiority seem not manipulative, as with so many other Blanches, but a technique of simultaneously masking and revealing her deep feelings of guilt. This character can often be annoying in her self-regard, but Clarvoe makes it clear that Blanche's deliberately tenuous relationship with truth is a valiant effort to overcome her terrible vulnerability.
The actress playing Stella can easily go overlooked in this play, but Kelly Mares finds all the role's substance; her Stella has passions of her own, and Mares makes us see the benefits under these circumstances of being a matter-of-fact hedonist with a short memory for abuse.
Gregory Northrop plays Mitch, Blanche's suitor, with decency and longing; his inarticulateness is oddly expressive. Among the actors in smaller roles, Harold Dixon and Marsha Bagwell stand out as a sort of older mirror-Kowalski couple upstairs.
As directed by Wyer and abetted by the lighting of Dennis Parichy and sound design of Brian Jerome Peterson, Dixon, Bagwell and six other actors do a splendid job of evoking the French Quarter's boisterous street life in the early scenes. Wyer gradually strips away the background activity and foreground transitions, which makes one wonder if the New Orleans off season has arrived, but this also focuses the intensifying action on the Kowalskis' two claustrophobic rooms.
First presented in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those classics that everyone knows, or should know. But this ATC production is a necessary reminder that there's much to read between those two famous lines.