The first Williamstown Theatre Festival production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” I reviewed was in 1986 — my first summer as The Berkshire Eagle’s theater critic. The production — the third time around for director Nikos Psacharopoulos, WTF’s founding artistic director — featured Blythe Danner as Blanche DuBois; Sigourney Weaver as her younger sister, Stella; Christopher Walken as Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski; and James Naughton as Harold Mitchell, better known as Mitch, Stanley’s friend at work and would-be suitor to Blanche.
It was a less-than-stellar evening as I recall, but it did produce one stellar moment — Danner’s entrance at the very opening of the show.
Dressed in white, if I remember correctly, and wearing a pair of high heels, Danner’s Blanche moved across nearly the full width of the then Adams Memorial Theatre stage, trying to look self-assured and purposeful even as her balance, and with it her false image of composure, wavered. That entrance said just about everything you needed to know about Blanche well before she uttered her first words. Just one of those astonishing moments that makes you understand what makes theater, theater.
Blanche — who hasn’t been seen at Williamstown since 2011 in an oddly crafted production on the Nikos Stage that starred Jessica Hecht — was heading back to Williamstown for the 2020 season when “Streetcar” and the rest of the Williamstown season at Williams College’s ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance were sidetracked, canceled, by the coronavirus pandemic.
Thanks, however, to the ingenuity, determination and spirit of WTF Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield and Kate Navin, head of scripted content for Audible, Inc. and artistic producer of Audible Theater, Blanche can be heard, if not seen, in a bravura, go-for-broke performance by Audra McDonald in a recorded complete production released Thursday on Audible.com.
Blanche’s fragility, uncertainty, false bravado, neediness are palpable in McDonald’s voice as Blanche makes her way from the streetcar stop through the streets of New Orleans’ Elysian Fields neighborhood to the small apartment where Stella (a curiously well-bred sounding Carla Gugino) and her husband, Stanley (a growling, grumbling Ariel Shafir), who works for an auto-parts supply company, live.
Wrapped in a shroud of delusion and desperation, Blanche is seeking refuge with Stella and Stanley, whom she’s never met. She has come from Laurel, a small town in Mississippi, having sold the ancestral estate, Belle Reve, she says. She also says that due to a case of bad nerves, she has taken a leave of absence from her job teaching English at the local school. She drinks, more than a little; exists on a diet of half truths, alcohol, sex with too-young men, boys — strangers — even as she strains to maintain a fiction of propriety and respectability.
Stanley will have none of this. Blanche’s presence is an invasion of his space, his territory. Her story about Belle Reve doesn’t ring true with Stanley. His relentless pursuit of what is revealed as a sordid, scandalous, degrading truth, puts him on a collision course with Blanche that will not end well.
McDonald charts Blanche’s descent into a hell of hells with a palette of rich emotional colors. She works with an astonishing vocal span that ranges from a deep, husky, smokiness to a top that speaks to Blanche’s fragility and frantic despair.
Even as the walls begin to close in as her would-be boyfriend and perhaps husband, Mitch (Sullivan Jones in a poignant and touching portrayal), turns against her, Blanche asserts her life-view with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs. “I don’t want realism,” she spits back at Mitch. “I’ll tell you what I want ... Magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it. Don’t turn on the light!”
And damned she will be as Mitch, informed by Stanley about Blanche’s true past in Laurel, literally, and figuratively, turns the light of truth on Blanche and leaves in disgust, frustration, and despair.
What’s left for Blanche is her final degradation when, left alone with Stanley overnight while Stella is in the hospital giving birth, she falls victim to his brutality, his bestiality, as he rapes her in an intentionally unsettling tough-to-take scene.
In a reflection of Blanche’s retreat from reality into the protective shelter of her own darkness, sound designer Lindsay Jones pumps up the volume. Stanley’s menacing voice booms through a series of explosive echo chambers almost without restraint; “The Shining’s” Jack Torrance on steroids. Birds caw in the background; waves crash upon a shore. Blanche moans; groans. “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning,” Stanley says, his voice barely heard amid the hurlyburly of an excessive, melodramatic soundscape that pulls this “Streetcar” to the edge of Grand Guignol.
Would that we felt that inevitability from the beginning; that palpable feeling of energy that drives the best of productions from beginning to end. This “Streetcar” moves fitfully over the course of its 2 hours and 40 minutes; gathering energy and momentum at isolated moments, in individual scenes, rather than aggregate.
Like so much else in this audible universe, we have no feel for the physical dynamics between them — how Stanley looks at Blanche; how she looks at him; how they move around each other. There are no vocal equivalents for body language, chemistry at least not in this production.
We are asked to take a lot of what is said on faith. At one point, just after her arrival at Stella and Stanley’s place, Blanche remarks to Stella that she’s not commented on her appearance. “You look just fine,” Gugino’s Stella replies with noncommittal reassurance. Does she? What does that mean? In fact, in his stage directions Williams gives us a telling description of a woman who is clearly out of place in the richly ethnically diverse working class Elysian Fields neighborhood in “a white suit with a fluffy bodice ... looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district.”
Williams describes this “old part of town” as one in which there is “a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races.” What, then, does it mean to have in McDonald’s Blanche a Black woman with a 5-years-younger white sister?
Williams was a symbolist. So is O’Hara. The settings he and his designers create onstage say much about the inner lives of the characters and the world they inhabit. There are no equivalents for that kind of meaning in this audible universe
What O’Hara’s production does do is throw a light on the intense dynamics of the relationships among Blanche, Stella, Stanley and Mitch, which often get lost in the expansive treatments “Streetcar” typically receives in full stage presentation. O’Hara’s production is virtually a chamber piece. The delicate relationship between two sisters who are getting to know one another again after some time apart takes on an affecting dimension. Stella’s clear, solid rational texture settles and reassures Blanche. At the same time, Blanche’s concern about Stella’s welfare and safety around Stanley is, as expressed by McDonald, in good measure genuine, honest and authentic.
There is a too-mannered, too-cultured vocal texture to Gugino’s Stella, as if the actress drifted in from some other Audible Theater project; hard to understand what she sees in Stanley, other than that their sex life seems to be explosive. He’s brought her down to his level, he crows, talking about her as if she were some kind of trophy.
Stella is an abused wife and makes excuses for Stanley; justifies his behavior and manner. At the same time, she conveys a convincing sense of actually having the upper hand; of knowing Stanley far, far better than he knows himself.
Whatever complexities lie within Stanley are barely evident in Shafir’s one-note performance. Blanche describes him as “bestial,” an ape. That is precisely the tone Shafir charts in his creation of a character who, even at his most unabashedly vulnerable moment offers us no way in.
Who knows when, if ever, this production will ever get on its feet. Especially given McDonald’s galvanic performance — this role seems to have been waiting for her — it would be worth experiencing, full out, what O’Hara had in mind and to experience it in the setting for which it was originally intended, a space with other people — an audience; actors on a stage.
What might have been might have been. What we do have is this uneven voice and soundscape rendering of a classic American drama with one knock-your-socks-off performance (McDonald) and another (Jones) that refuses to take the easy way out on a character who is too often lightly regarded.
Audible? For sure. Theater? ...