- A Streetcar Named Desire
Click for larger view
View full resolution
After fifty years, what more can be done with A Streetcar Named Desire? While significant departures have been made from the play’s 1947 premiere directed by Elia Kazan, the theatrical marriage of Kazan to Tennessee Williams came to define the style that Kazan dubbed “poetic realism,” which deemphasized the expressionist subjectivity at the heart of the text. The Alley Theatre’s 1996 production of Streetcar reclaimed the play’s expressionistic form with Michael Wilson’s imaginative direction, which so effectively reenvisioned the play as to leave one wondering, “have I really heard that line before?”
Wilson’s vision of Streetcar responds to Williams’s strong roots in expressionism, dating back to his earliest plays and reflected in stage directions ignored in most productions. Wilson foregrounds such elements before the play begins: as the audience enters the theatre, the stage is alive with an atmospheric montage of characters from Williams’s one-act plays about the Vieux Carré, including Auto-da-Fé, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, and The Mutilated. This prologue stages the “broken world” of the Vieux Carré, emphasizing its polysexual and multicultural ambiance through characters that include a transvestite and a blues piano player and singer.
Blanche appears suddenly in the midst of this milieu, isolated in a bright white spotlight as the action freezes around her, emphasizing her unnatural, ghostly appearance in the decadent Quarter. Actress Annalee Jefferies wears subtle white body paint, which transforms her Blanche into an alabaster statue frozen in the glare of white light. Blanche is usually played as a fragile belle, madly clinging to the vanished “belle reve” of the old South. Jefferies, however, departs from this model, playing Blanche as a survivor fighting tooth and nail for the only dignity she has left—discovered in theatricalist trappings of paper moons and lanterns. Jefferies’s Blanche has a sense of humor, playing upon the richly grotesque comedy that is frequently overlooked in the script, using it as a weapon against the cruelty of the Vieux Carré that Stanley epitomizes. In refiguring Blanche as a tenacious survivor, her predatory sexuality is no longer pathetic, but allows her strength to inform her desire, recasting it as a will to live. When she cries, “I don’t want realism, I want magic” (A Streetcar Named Desire [New York: New Directions, 1980], 145), it resounds, not as a quivering retreat from the world, but as an affirmation of the play’s expressionist form, recentering the drama around Blanche’s journey and dethroning Stanley from the central position accorded him by Kazan. Actor Patrick St. Esprit understates Stanley’s violence and bestiality, seeming at times to fade in the face of Blanche’s fury or to melt away when cajoled by Stella, played with girlish romanticism by Alyssa Bresnahan.
During the “closet” scene, when Blanche tells Mitch (James Black) about her discovery of her young husband’s homosexuality, Wilson virtually stops all action on stage, as Blanche turns away, bracing her back against a pole near the near the proscenium to deliver her monologue directly to the audience. As she slowly rotates her expressionless face from side to side, Williams’s poetic language is elevated above all else on stage, in a mode that resembles the constructed isolation of Robert [End Page 227] Wilson’s Hamlet monologues. Michael Wilson uses this scene, which was omitted from Kazan’s film, as an indictment of the realist world that Blanche chooses to abandon. Immediately after Blanche says, “By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty—which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it . . . the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years . . .”(114), we hear the thundering sound of a streetcar locomotive as the glare of its headlight sweeps across the audience to...