Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Streetcar Named DesireYellow Tree Theatre
Also see Arty's recent review of Through Our Eyes Festival
This Streetcar is a pared-down staging of Williams' original, with only four characters–plus the brief appearance of a doctor and nurse in the closing scene–instead of the twelve Williams lists. This may have been an economic decision (theaters, especially smaller ones like Yellow Tree, are still struggling to regain footing in the aftermath of the pandemic shut-down) or an artistic one meant to focus on the four main characters at the crux of Streetcar's narrative–or both. In any case, the decision may have had sound footing at the table, but the result is that we view the crisis each character faces apart from the context of a bustling, largely indifferent world in which they are meant to survive.
The plot has a near mythic status in popular culture. Stella's sister Blanche DuBois makes a sudden appearance as an uninvited house guest in Stanley and Stella's cramped quarters, saying she has taken a leave from her job as a high school English teacher to restore her frayed nerves. Blanche struggles to uphold the aura of Southern graciousness and feminine refinement acquired during her upbringing on a Mississippi plantation estate. The truth is that the house and what had remained of the estate, Belle Reve, has been lost to creditors, and that Blanche's separation from her job is an involuntary and permanent one, the result of alleged breaches of conduct on her part.
Stanley inhabits a world completely apart from Blanche's illusionary gentility. His Polish descent (Blanche disparagingly refers to as a "Polack") represents the ethnic diversity that was viewed to have diluted an imagined purity traced back to the nation's British and French founders. He is a World War II veteran still poised to do battle. Moreover, Stanley is a hard, practical man with no use for poetry or propriety. Blanche calls him "common," and there can be no denying that he is. He lives to satisfy his own needs and impulses, which include his desire for Stella. Stella, younger than Blanche, left Belle Reve at a very young age, opting instead to follow her own instincts and desires. This led her to Stanley, though she maintains a kind and generous nature he lacks.
The setup seems unlikely to have a good end, as Stanley's distemper and violent fits rise in direct proportion to Blanche's growing detachment from reality. One of Stanley's card-playing cronies, a good-natured bachelor named Mitch who is in want of a harbor in which to moor his heart after the sickly mother to whom he is devoted is gone, is charmed by Blanche. With this development, Blanche allows for hope that she may have a pathway out of the spiral of loss and rejection she is struggling against.
Williams's language, full of grace and raw power, is all there on stage, and the mix of tensions and possibilities stirred up among Blanche, Stanley, Stella, and Mitch are as compelling as ever. All of this is restrained, though, by the absence of a world around them. Stanley's card games are a lair of masculine temperament, meant to have four players, thus outnumbering the women present in the home. With just Stanley and Mitch at the table, the match seems too even, almost anemic. It lacks the uproar of men letting lose their egos and ids. Lacking the words and actions of people on the street–especially upstairs neighbor Eunice, who (in other renditions of the play) offers Stella a reality check concerning the life she has chosen for herself–this foursome exists without a backdrop of social norms and expectations. The result feels like a carefully crafted interlocking puzzle of needs and emotions, reminiscent more of a play by Harold Pinter than Tennessee Williams. Understand, Pinter's work is, at its best, terrific, but it lacks the sizzle and steam that is possible with Williams.
The cast assembled for this production is uneven as well. Usually, Streetcar tips its balance one way or the other, toward Blanche or toward Stanley. Here, Stella appears as the lynchpin, the one most changed by the course of events, on whom our focus is drawn. Part of that is due to the stunning performance by Kendall Kent. Kent's Stella exudes energy and enthusiasm early on but learns to moderate her own strength to hold her own against Stanley, even if it means violating her sense of right and wrong. She is not the same woman at play's end as she was at the beginning.
Blanche is changed too, but along a course that is wholly predictable from the start. Nora Targonski-O'Brien conveys Blanche's fragility, yes, but so clearly that she arrives with a crack in her surface, and we watch as that crack inevitably deepens and spreads. Targonski-O'Brien's Blanche never offers a glimmer of hope that she will make it out alive.
Nathan Keepers plays Stanley with requisite coarseness, rudeness and selfishness, but he does not convey menace. Sure, he is dangerous when set off, but in the manner of a temperamental small dog prone to bark and bite, rather than a beast that can decapitate its prey in one fell swoop. His ultimate act of violence fails to convince. Given the modesty with which the scene is written (compared to 21st century plays), I was prepared to believe that there is no follow-through on Stanley's part, and that he leaves the scene without more than the threat of what he had meant to do.
Bradley Hildebrandt makes solid choices in his portrayal of Mitch. He represents a potential for male gentility and kindness, able to admit his vulnerabilities to a woman with whom he believes he is on equal footing, but unleashes a reserve of pent-up violence and vulgarity he himself did not know he possessed when his hope is crippled and his pride is wounded by uncovering the woman's truth.
Under Randy Reyes' direction, there are other perplexing choices. The crew member who enters to reset the stage between scenes wearing a blank mask, like someone out of a slasher film, seems more intrusive than if she were unmasked. Wearing that mask in the guise of the matron who arrives with a doctor in the final scene is unsettling, deflating the scene's intensity. Further, with Hildebrandt called upon to play the similarly masked doctor in that final scene, Mitch is absent, a departure from William's script in which Mitch's presence and his response to the final events contribute mightily to the play's gripping conclusion.
The production's physical attributes are well done, with a suitably shabby apartment setting designed by Justin Hooper. The apt costumes designed by Samantha Haddow help to define each character. Kathy Maxwell's lighting, homing in on scenes that require more intimacy, and Jeff Bailey's sound design, with the growl of the passing streetcars, add vitality to the production.
A Streetcar Named Desire is a play that should be seen by anyone with serious interest in the history or artistry of American theater. At its best, it rips open the Earth with its conflict between our animal and transcendent natures, with the odds tipped unfavorably in one direction. It suggests that to deny our nature is to set a course toward oblivion. Yellow Tree's production does not show the play in its best light, but it is still worth seeing to experience a landmark work. The arguments it makes are there to be seen and heard, even if the fire one associates with A Streetcar Named Desire is more like a flicker.
A Streetcar Named Desire, runs through October 9, 2022, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $27.00 - $31.00; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+), students with valid ID, military personnel, and groups of ten or more. $10.00 rush seats go on sale thirty minutes before the performance, pending availability. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: Tennessee Williams; Director: Randy Reyes; Set Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Samantha Haddow; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: Jeff Bailey; Props Master: Brandt Roberts; Intimacy Director: Vanessa M.H. Powers; Stage Manager: Laura Topham; Assistant Stage Manager: Abigail Blue; Technical Production Coordinator: Justin Hooper; Assistant to the Director: Lester Eugene Mayers
Cast: Bradley Hildebrandt (Mitch), Nathan Keepers (Stanley), Kendall Kent (Stella), Nora Targonski-O'Brien (Blanche).