A Streetcar Named Desire — Image courtesy Ten Thousand Things

A Streetcar Named Desire

Ten Thousand Things
Directed by Randy Reyes

Disclaimers first. A Streetcar Named Desire is my favorite play. Randy Reyes (the director) is one of my favorite people in the Twin Cities theater scene. And while I have only been to a few Ten Thousand Things productions, it is quickly becoming one of my favorite local theater companies. So chances of me not liking Ten Thousand Things’ current staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Randy Reyes, were pretty slim. That being said, I liked it. I really liked it. The closing scene brought me to the edge of tears, something that almost never happens to me.  The charged emotional power of the performances, the expert delivery of some of Tennessee Williams’ best writing, the easy energy the characters cultivated in their interactions with each other, and the understated yet elegant set and costume design made for one of those experiences where you leave the theater afterwards knowing that you have been changed.

Because of the play’s history, anyone playing Stanley Kowalski has big shoes to fill, and Kris Nelson’s performance was stellar. His sneering insults consistently made me wince, his violent anger genuinely scared me, and when he begged Stella to return to him, I believed, probably wrongly and with every cell in my body, that he would never behave like such a louse again. When Nelson first walked on stage, I was skeptical that anyone without hulking biceps could pull off Stanley, but he proved me wrong and then some.

Stella and Mitch usually function as little more than foils for Stanley and Blanche, but not so in this production. Kurt Kwan was lovably bumbling as the sweaty, mother-obsessed Mitch. My litmus test for Mitch is always the scene where he tells Blanche about his workout routine and then realizes halfway through the conversation that the subject bores her, and Kwan engaged me in this scene with such awkward sweetness that I really wanted Blanche to show more interest in his silly prattle.

Even more compelling was Elizabeth Grullon as Stella. Stella, historically, is a boring character, a woman who has little to define her beyond her passion for Stanley, her acceptance of his abuse, and her foundering love, or at least sympathy, for her sister. But Grullon’s Stella radiated both sensuality and unshakable power in a way that made me worry less about her than I usually do about Stella. She is a Stella who can stand up to Stanley, something we simply don’t see enough in stagings of the play. Similarly, Stella’s primal cries as Blanche was escorted away at the end of play were truly gut-wrenching, and one got the sense that Grullon’s Stella was actually devastated over letting her sister be sent to a psychiatric hospital — that she wasn’t just, as is usually the case with Stella, capitulating to Stanley with a few obligatory tears but the ultimate belief that his decision is both justified and for the best.

A Streetcar Named Desire — Image courtesy Ten Thousand ThingsLet me preface my discussion of Blanche with another disclaimer. As much as I love the play as a whole, I hardly ever like the way Blanche is portrayed. Even Vivian Leigh’s iconic performance, at times, leaves me wanting. I think this is because we often get too much of the crazy alcoholic Blanche and not enough of the rest of Blanche: damaged, introspective, fragile, insecure, intelligent, antiquated, and inwardly focused to the point where I worry, every time she is forced to carry on a conversation with someone else, that she is going to shatter from the stress of it. The reason she avoids bright lights of all kinds is not only because she doesn’t want others to see her true age, but also because she wants to dwell within reverie, within illusion, within the beautiful dream that she may have lost in the form of her old country estate but chooses to cultivate and worship within herself.

This being said, I thought that Austene Van as Blanche opened the play strong, had a few stumbles along the way, and ended phenomenally. She did old-fashioned southern indignation perfectly, she did all-in-a-tizzy chatter beautifully, and she did trembling insanity exquisitely. There were times when her introspection was lacking, partly, I think, because the frenetic pace she used for the crazy and indignant parts of her character was not properly slowed down. Blanche has many moods, tones, and states of being, and it is hard to be both frantic and profoundly lost, manic and deeply ensconced in memories of the past. When Blanche told Mitch about being touched at the sight of her young students falling in love, for instance, and also when she described what it was like watching her family members die, one by one, it felt a bit like she was reciting lines instead of speaking from a place of deep feeling, and again, I think this is because the words tumbled out of her so rapidly as to feel less than genuine. The words had not yet become part of Blanche and therefore could not become a part of us. Similarly, her story about Alan, her young husband’s, death, came and went a bit too quickly. One got the sense that this was a tragedy she had recently experienced, not one that she had lived with her entire life, not the root cause of nearly all of her missteps since.

If Stella and Stanley exist largely in their bodies, Blanche exists mostly in her head (despite her many love affairs), and in order for this state to be made evident on stage, Blanche needs to spend some time mulling, brooding, quietly contemplating (which is, I think, what we’re meant to think she’s doing during all of those long baths she takes). It would have been nice to see Van balance her rapid fire dialogue, her charming loquaciousness, with moments of despair too total, fear too all-encompassing for words. Or failing that, words delivered with a little more careful hesitancy. Her tale is largely a harrowing one, after all, and no one would fault her for finding it a difficult one to tell.

This being said, the second act of the play was a good one for Blanche. Her interactions with Mitch managed to be simultaneously sweetly lighthearted, meticulously calculated, and full of desperation thick as New Orleans humidity. Similarly, her interactions with Stanley, particularly as the rape scene drew near, were increasingly hypnotic and tension-filled, so much so that I found myself with sweaty palms and labored breath when they finally had their “date.”  It was interesting that Blanche’s scenes with the men were often more compelling than the scenes with her sister, but then again, as someone who has devoted her life to artifice, Blanche is a master of, if not manipulating interactions with others, massaging them. Perhaps Stella has known Blanche too long to fall into her traps or rise to meet her as a verbal sparring partner. Or, perhaps, being around her sister, Blanche feels less of a need to keep up her act. Either way, the scenes between the sisters, while still enjoyable, lacked some of the electricity of those between Blanche and the boys.

Blanche’s ruin at the end of the play was complete, tragic, and utterly heartbreaking. If there is a particular moment that Blanche shines, it is here, so thoroughly broken is she, so utterly bewildered, and so completely trusting, that one wants nothing more than to cradle the woman in one’s arms and tell her all the comforting lies that she has been trying to believe since the opening scene. When Blanche decides to leave Elysian Fields with the doctors, to rely upon the kindness of strangers, she is able to condense, in her final famous line, all of the shame, the grief, the exhaustion, and the fear that sparked her trip to New Orleans and has haunted her since. “I want to rest,” she tells Stella earlier in the play, and one gets the sense that, in some sense, she will finally get to do this, leaving Stanley, Stella, and Mitch to live with what they have made of her and muddle through a world much less delicate, much less full of genteel ideals, and much less painfully beautiful than the one Blanche is being forced to leave behind.

Photos by Paula Keller

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.