(Theater Review) A Streetcar Named Desire at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Ana Reeder

Ana Reeder plays Stella Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at WTF

Williamstown Theatre Festival
A Streetcar Named Desire
Nikos Stage
June 22-July 3, 2011
Review by Seth Rogovoy

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., June 23, 2011) – Every production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire is haunted by the ghost of Elia Kazan’s film version starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Wise are those actors and directors who pretend it doesn’t exist, which seems to be the case in the fascinating version playing now at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage – and aptly so, given the legendary Nikos Psacharapoulos’s penchant for producing Williams at Williamstown.

This is an intimate Streetcar in many ways, a Streetcar that figuratively and literally puts the audience right into the ground floor flat where Stella and Stanley Kowalski (Ana Reeder and Sam Rockwell) live and where Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois (Jessica Hecht), comes to visit, and in the process complete the destruction of the beautiful dream upon which her life has been falsely constructed.

Jessica Hecht

Jessica Hecht plays Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at WTF

Part of the audience is seated onstage on risers toward the rear, giving them the opposite view of the play that the rest of us see. One arguably should really see this production twice to appreciate the presumable different experience that provides. But short of that, Collette Pollard’s imaginative set, which reduces the Kowalski’s apartment to an overcrowded, low-ceilinged two-room flat where the lack of privacy is made even more brazen by the lack of exterior walls (the better for all of us to see through), Heather Gilbert’s evocative lighting design, and especially Joshua Schmidt’s score, which includes pitch-perfect bebop and free jazz punctuating the scenes, work together to support director David Cromer’s minimalist, realist rendering of Streetcar.

Streetcar can be a victim of some of Williams’s more flowerly excesses, but not in this production, where some of the most recognizable phrases and speeches, especially ones typically delivered by a swooning Blanche, are spoken plainly and conversationally by the terrific quartet of lead actors – not always an easy trick. It makes this Streetcar more palatable, less arch, and in some way more timeless.

Every Streetcar is different, and this one gives more weight to the relationship between Blanche and Harold Mitchell, aka Mitch, played sensitively here by Daniel Stewart Sherman, than others. As such, the play becomes more balanced, and Blanche’s backstory is more fleshed out – indeed, one of Cromer’s more startling and effective ploys is to incarnate some of Blanche’s past, the characters that haunt her, making her ultimate breakdown more poignant and believable.

That’s important because often Blanche just comes across as overwrought from the beginning, but not here, and not as played subtly and with elegant understatement by Jessica Hecht. Similarly, Sam Rockwell’s Stanley is not the primal force of nature that Brando was and that Blanche imagines him to be, which also makes him more believable and makes Stella’s love for him more sympathetic.

Years ago, the Williamstown Theatre Festival was virtually synonymous with Tennessee Williams (and, perhaps, Chekhov). How perfect that the theater’s new artistic director Jenny Gersten chose to open her debut season by reviving this Williams chestnut on the stage named after the man who made Williamstown and literally brought Williams (no relation to the college) to Williamstown, and did so with an utterly fresh, contemporary, almost experimental version that revealed new and previously unexplored aspects to this modern classic.

 

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