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Stellar Stella Steals “Streetcar”
by Allan Appel | Oct 4, 2013 1:18 pm
Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater
Stanley Kowalksi tossed one radio out the window without much of a wind-up, more a change of pace. He also shattered only one plate after Blanche called him a Polack for the umpteenth time.
When that happened halfway through the Yale Rep’s three-hour production of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, I realized I was still waiting for Joe Manganiello’s Stanley to become wild and crazy Marlon Brando, who starred as Stanley in the 1951 movie version.
I was also waiting for Rene Augesen’s rather sturdy Blanche to descend into frailness and whispery neurotic urgency of Vivien Leigh, who starred with Brando in the film.
Talk about the pitfalls of earnestly trying to avoid the anxiety of influence.
This Streetcar is the first in Yale Rep’s long distinguished history. Directors should be praised for the risks they take in attempting to bring us something new and fresh as they tackle a much produced text.
Playgoers too have some obligation not to look at the stage version through backward-looking eyes, or with the film adaptation as the measure of the play, even if the director, Elia Kazan, helmed them both
Alas, I didn’t do very well with this challenge as I sat through the Yale Rep’s production, which runs at the University Theater through Oct. 12.
I once saw an all-female production of Macbeth. The women high-fived and chest-thumped, killed, and maimed each other very well, but in the end the masculine imitation didn’t add much freshness or value beyond novelty.
Yale Rep’s Mark Rucker-directed production of Streetcar doesn’t commit the sin of novelty for novelty’s sake. In fact it’s very respectful with the colors, shading, screens, mood music, and schizophrenia-inducing flashbacks that Williams put into his play heavy with stage directions.
But Stanley was still trying so hard not to be Brando and Blanche not to be Leigh, that the leads didn’t quite find out who they were as they moved workmanlike through the text
The result: the supporting actors, Stella, as played by the talented Sarah Sokolovic (at left in photo, with Augesen), and Adam O’Byrne’s Mitch, Blanche’s last hope for a romantic redeemer, emerged for me as the more satisfying aspects of the production.
O’Byrne’s height and long, gangly-armed physique worthy of an NBA defensive guard embody his awkwardness perfectly. So when he proudly asks Blanche to guess his weight, your heart goes out to him.
Not so to Blanche, who quips too quickly back, with alas, sitcom timing, that now it’s Mitch’s turn to guess hers.
The pacing throughout doesn’t allow Stanley’s hurt pride to be felt or his punches to land where they are intended, nor for Blanche’s pain to be sufficiently felt. You know she’s upset by the light and the caking of her make-up, but you want to see more of her heart.
The gritty, controversial homosexual back story that gave this play its reputation—how Blanche fell in love with a gay boy, called him a degenerate, and then he committed suicide—plays out in the gauzy-lit silent scenes, we understand, in Blanche’s memory and crumbling mind. But we don’t feel it sufficiently in Augesen’s Blanche. I struggled to connect the dots between that trauma and how she handles its “return” when she all but tries to seduce the boy coming to collect the newspaper bill.
Into the breach big time comes Sokolovic’s Stella. In Williams’ beautifully constructed play—there’s always a next problem around the corner as the ante is upped—I always have thought that Stella has if not the most lines, then the best role.
Her conflict from a dramaturgical point of view is the juiciest. While you’re never in doubt that Stanley is going to defend his turf as if he were still with the 241st Engineers, or that Blanche is going to counter-attack with ethnic-slurring vigor, Stella swings this way and that. You don’t quite know until the end on whose side she will land, or at what price.
Sokolovic balances beautifully as she defends her sister and the pull of family and other values (no matter how pre-Civil War-ish) one moment, and then in the next can’t resist her husband’s animal magnetism. She’s the center of the play, both full of new life and the flawed old life. We’re with her because, darn it, we too can’t decide. Once or twice I even felt as if she were winking at us,as if to say, “Lord, what fools these other mortals be.”
But that’s another play.
I’d see this production again; as always the Rep’s costuming, lighting, and sound are convincing and memorable. But I should be forbidden from watching the film version on TCM for at least six months prior.
Tags: Streetcar Named Desire, Yale Rep
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