A Steamy “Streetcar Named Desire” Takes New Route at Williamstown Theatre Festival

Forget every other version of A Streetcar Named Desire you have ever seen. This opening production of the Tennessee Williams classic will make your jaw drop. But if you don’t go with a completely open mind, you might start comparing it with other Streetcars you have seen, and that would be a mistake. Wipe the slate clean, then fasten that seat belt, this production soars into the theatrical stratosphere.

(Seen above is Sam Rockwell as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.)

There has been a lot of speculation about the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new artistic director Jenny Gersten’s course for this venerable company. While she is no stranger to WTF, she is now fully at the helm for the first time with everyone watching. They’ll be using this first play of the new season as a barometer of which way the company is headed.

When speaking with her this past March (interview link here), I asked Gersten about Streetcar, especially since David Cromer had done a very different take on it in Chicago at the Writer’s Theatre. She ventured that “what we are heading for is a different experience of the play than has been felt in the past. The design of the stage for the Nikos is going to be very unusual. In our conversations David’s take on the play is that the Kowalski apartment feels very claustrophobic, which is very much part of the text.”

A Streetcar Named Desire features Sam Rockwell (l) as Stanley and Ana Reeder (r) as Stella. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

When you walk into the Nikos Theatre you see exactly what she means, the set is not on the stage but in front of it. The stage has several rows of seats that look into the Kowalski apartment from one side, and the nine rows of the regular theatre peer into it from the other. Much of the dialogue is delivered in profile, giving each of the audiences an equal chance to see the characters, and there are only a few passages where somebody might see the back of one actor’s head, but then again they are likely seeing the full face of the other actor.

The way Director Cromer positions the performers is the least of the unusual tricks he has up his sleeve. He layers detail upon detail into a production that seems to have no boundaries, much less any walls. The audience is virtually in the scenes with the players, the effect is stunning.

This of course requires the ratcheting back of the normal theatrical conventions which audiences are used to in larger theatres. The Nikos, even with the stage seats is only a little over a hundred seats. The usual first row or two had to be removed to make way for the stage. The intimacy means the characters can be played less broadly, more naturally, with more attention to the nuances of furtive glances, raised eyebrows and more conversational delivery of the sort you expect in films, not theatre. It works brilliantly.

The style may be different, but the substance is still there.

Who doesn’t know the story of Blanche DuBois, the perfect Southern belle hiding nymphomaniacal tendencies, whose thoughts and deeds are constantly at war, with frequent retreats into booze to soften the hurt. Out of necessity she is staying with her sister Stella,and brutish husband Stanley Kowalski.

The fight choreography was riveting.

When Blanche (Jessica Hecht) prattles on about her gentlemen suitors and her “nervous” condition, you can sense that something is not quite right with her. When Tennessee Williams wrote the play he gave Blanche DuBois both character revealing lines and throwaway ones. In this production, some of them are seared into your memory while some of them are just to fill the silence. The way Hecht senses which are heartfelt clues to her character and those which are just a form of emotional armor helps us understand this classic character in a way never seen before. As Stella, Ana Reeder seems to be an ever-patient brick wall which absorbs her sister’s complaints and dreams with nary a ruffle.

Meanwhile Sam Rockwell as Stanley Kowalski and the other men players are on a completely different wavelength, channeling the famed Chicago (Steppenwolf for example) Rock ‘n Roll style of acting where nobody simply sits in a chair, they throw themselves into it. Rockwell has to be the most tightly wound Stanley ever seen on stage, a menacing, no-nonsense guy that at moments reminded me of actor Ed Norton and at others of Archie Bunker. We have all known macho strutters like him – scruffy, uncouth and uncaring about anyone but himself and – when he remembers (or wants “it”) – his wife Stella.

Turning up the heat are Stella and Stanley. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

The steamiest moment in the play (and there are several) follows a drunken fight with his gin rummy partners. Afterwards they give him a cold shower and leave, he then decides to make love to his wife, and with the bed a mere ten feet from where I sat, it is an incredibly realistic scene. At the same time Blanche is in the next room talking a mile a minute, but nobody was listening. Marvelous subdued lighting and escalating Grotowski-esque physicality and sounds made this a climatic scene in more than just one sense.

Blanche’s suitor Mitch (Daniel Stewart Sherman) was stunning in his transformation from Blanche’s polite love interest into an angry and lustful brute. His transformation also signaled a major decline in Blanche’s ability to hold herself together, and soon they both went a little over the edge, she more than he.

By the last act of the play Jessica Hecht’s Blanche is raped, abused and lost, her last chance of happiness with Mitch gone, so she retreats to her fantasy world, with her departure to a mental asylum at hand.

When she is hallucinating we hear the leitmotiv music of “Put your little foot…” (Varsouviana Polka). One unusual touch that director Cromer has integrated into the play is the memory of the young man Blanche once loved and who committed suicide. First he appears ghostlike on the balcony and then in the third act, on the bed as she discovers him with an older man in flagrante delicto.

While the production is essentially the same as first seen at The Writer’s Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, the cast is completely different. The theatre in the round aspect has been preserved, and the ingenious cheap-linoleum-and-naked-bulbs set set by Collette Pollard defines the space clearly with a hard ceiling and see-through stairs (well, at least as transparent as a big, heavy flight of stairs can be) and everyone’s view is designed to include some of the furniture or appliances in the house between the audience and the actors. The effect approaches voyeurism.

Stanley (Sam Rockwell) and Blanche (Jessica Hecht) discuss a fine point.

The lighting design by Heather Gilbert is very subtle at times, as when it appears the stage is only lit by a candle or bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. After the effect is established, additional lighting slowly comes up. For example in a candlelit scene, Jessica Hecht’s hair is toplit to give form to her figure. When Stanley and Stella go at it in the bed, just enough backlighting is used to give the copulating couple a clear silhouette.

The sound design with its street sounds and blues music by Joshua Schmidt was clever, though on occasion it came in and out of the scenes with a bit too much ferocity, calling attention to itself rather than underlining a moment.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has done itself proud with this masterful production. We look forward to what else Jenny Gersten has up her sleeve but whatever it might be, you can expect the unexpected from the Williamstown team this summer. If good theatre is your desire, take a ride on this Streetcar, and don’t forget to ask for a transfer. It is going to be a great trip.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, directed by David Cromer, with sets by Collette Pllard, Costumes by Janice Pytel, Lights by Heather Gilbert, Sound by Joshua Schmidt. Cast: Jennifer Engstrom (Eunice Hubbell), Crystal Lucas-Perry (Negro Woman), Ana Reeder (Stella Kowalski), Sam Rockwell (Stanley Kowalski), Daniel Stewart Sherman (Harold Mitchell “Mitch”), Jessica Hecht (Blanche DuBois), Lou Sumrall (Steve Hubbell), Luis Vega (Pablo Gonzales), Michael Bradley Cohen (A Young Collector), Peter Albrink (Ensemble), Vella Lovell (Mexican Woman), Kirby Ward (Doctor), Emily Ryder Simoness (Matron). About three hours with two fifteen minute intermissions. June 22-July 3, 2011, Nikos Stage, Williamstown, MA. wtfestival.org

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