A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of those plays that everyone considers a “classic,” even if all they know about it is the much-parodied scene where Stanley goes outside and yells “Stella!” really loud.

Fortunately, as Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of the show more than adequately demonstrates, “Streetcar” really IS a classic — one of the best plays of this century, by some estimates.

It’s summer in the French quarter of New Orleans. Blanche DuBois (Joyce Cohen) shows up at the tiny apartment of her sister Stella (Amy Tribbey) and her husband Stanley (Mark Elliot Wilson), hoping to stay with them for a while. Her reasons are vague, and she tries to maintain a dignified air even while sleeping on a hard bed in the living room/kitchen part of the house.

Blanche and Stanley immediately do not hit it off. Stanley is crude, quick-tempered and — especially — loud. His words come from the back of his throat with an odd, fascinating accent that Wilson manages to keep up for most of the production. He seems to love his wife, though he is occasionally cruel to her, and often cruel to his sister-in-law. He’s not exactly likable because he’s such a bully, but he seems like a REAL bully too — not a one-dimensional, black-wearing Bad Guy. There were times when I was genuinely afraid of Stanley, so out of control and unpredictable was he. Any actor who can actually make the audience afraid of him must be doing something right.

Blanche is even more full of contradictions that Stanley is. She is at once proud and insecure, haughty and afraid, aloof and friendly. She begins to fall for Mitch (Craig Bockhorn), one of Stanley’s poker buddies, and he is certainly smitten with her. She encourages his advances, then pushes him away, then flirts quite shamelessly with the paperboy. Cohen does a marvelous job making Blanche a fleshed-out character, one that we can identify with despite the whole slew of traumas that are revealed, one by one, as the show progresses.

Bockhorn is quite sweet and sincere, almost heart-breakingly so, as Mitch.

Ultimately, “Streetcar” is about illusion and reality, and about being a victim. Blanche suffers enormously, and most of it is not through her own doing. This makes her situation even sadder as her fragile spirit is crushed more and more by the lunkheaded Stanley.

Blanche refers to water as “the blessedest thing God created.” She takes baths constantly, and near the end of the play speaks of wanting to spend the rest of her life at sea. Her obsession with water represents her desire to wash away her past, to be reborn — baptized, if you will — and start fresh. Indeed, the first thing she notices about her sister’s apartment and the neighborhood it’s in is how dirty it is. Blanche came to New Orleans to escape uncleanness, and she winds up having to live in it.

Pioneer Theatre Company generally does top-notch plays, and this is no exception. The set is fantastic, as always, and the acting is above average. “Streetcar” is effective in its appeal to human emotions, all the way up to the devastating finale. It’s a mature, sensible, honest production.

It was hard not to laugh when Stanley went outside and yelled "Stella!" The actor did a fine job of it, but that scene has been parodied so often that it's hard to take it seriously anymore. Fortunately, it's not really a pivotal moment in the play (I know, you'd think it was in the climax, the way it's quoted so often), so not taking it seriously didn't hurt things too much.

I saw the movie version not long after this -- seeing the play really made me want to see the movie -- and I also thoroughly enjoyed that. Marlon Brando was actually a good actor back then, not the obese self-parody he is now. I have a friend (who is often given to overstatement) who says the part where Marlon Brando yells "Stella!" is the greatest acting moment in movie history. I don't know if I agree, but it is pretty good, as these things go.