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Undying Desire 

Theater Preview: A Streetcar Named Desire

Published March 7, 2001 at 6:33 p.m.

SISTER ACT Kathryn Blume and Dee Pelletier as Stella and Blanche - JORDAN SILVERMAN
  • Jordan Silverman
  • SISTER ACT Kathryn Blume and Dee Pelletier as Stella and Blanche

“I don’t want realism,” pleads Blanche DuBois. “I want magic.” That wish perfectly sums up the fatal flaw of the haunted Southern belle in A Streetcar Named Desire, a brilliant drama by Tennessee Williams set in the swelter of steamy New Orleans.

When Blanche’s pipedreams clash with the brutal truths that eat at her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, it provides a shattering glimpse of the human condition.

“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people,” Williams wrote in a 1947 letter to Elia Kazan, who directed the original Broadway production and the subsequent film. “Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than by malice. Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos… In the end you should feel, ‘If only they had all known about each other.’”

False assumptions lead to the tense psychological dance between Blanche and Stanley in the dining hall of the First Congregational Church in Burlington, where the Vermont Stage Company has been rehearsing its version of Streetcar, which opens next week at the Flynn-Space. Two New York actors, Dee Pelletier and Jack Newman, give their all to difficult roles that many people will forever associate with the dynamic silver-screen performances of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in 1951. Kathryn Blume portrays Stella, Stanley’s adoring wife and Blanche’s devoted younger sister — a combination that Williams contrived as incompatible.

“The conflict in the play is so great,” suggests Newman, who is nearly as movie-star handsome as Brando in his heyday. “Everybody is right, but all the points of view are just working against each other.”

The willowy Pelletier sees the text as addressing “the forces of light and darkness. I think it’s easy for people to identify with Blanche. She hits a chord in all of us.”

The shorter and more curvaceous Blume, who splits her time between the Big Apple and Charlotte, thinks that “Blanche and Stanley are basically locked in a battle for domination of Stella.”

And Mark Nash, Blume’s husband and the Vermont Stage artistic director at the controls of Streetcar, acknowledges that “when I come home at night after rehearsing, I’m a little shaky. There’s so much raw emotion going on.”

Perhaps that’s one reason A Streetcar Named Desire seems so ubiquitous. In the last few years, both Champlain College and the Northern Stage Company have presented the play. The Savoy Theater in Montpelier recently showed the Kazan movie in a repertory cinema series. The magnificent potboiler is the centerpiece of a narrative about theater people with tragic love lives in Spanish director Pedro Almodòvar’s Oscar-winning All About My Mother. Nash uses the Williams classic as an exercise in his acting classes.

“In the years to come, this masterful work always moved its audience,” Kazan theorized in his 1988 autobiography. “There was no way to spoil Streetcar. No matter who directed it, with what concept, what cast, in what language, it was always hailed… There is no such thing as a definitive production of a play like this any more than there can be a final Hamlet.”

Much like Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark, Stanley is obsessed. He cannot let go of his campaign to unmask Blanche, who appears to be indigent when she arrives at the small, shabby, French Quarter apartment he shares with Stella. The married couple also share an earthy sex life that unnerves Blanche, a woman with an overactive libido cloaked in flirtation and innuendo.

Stanley believes she has stolen, or at least squandered, whatever meager family inheritance would otherwise come his way under the “Napoleonic code,” which dictates that a husband has a vested interest in his wife’s property. As she tries to dodge his scrutiny, it turns out Blanche’s secrets and lies hold more dread than mere theft.

There’s a good deal of class prejudice in the love-hate relationship Blanche shares with Stanley. She is educated, cultured and more than a little contemptuous; in her estimation, he’s a Neanderthal. What they have in common is a keen eye for the foibles of others and a penchant for alcohol. But it is Blanche, held together by a gossamer web of illusions and fantasies, who stands to lose the most in this contest of wills.

“Stanley’s not a monster; he’s just capable of being a monster,” points out Dana Yeaton, the VSC’s executive director. “Williams gives both sides the best arguments imaginable.”

In rehearsal, Newman’s Stanley bristles at what he perceives as injustice when he tells Stella, “Looks to me like you’ve been swindled, baby.”

Torn between the two people she loves, Stella demonstrates womanly passion with Stanley and giddy, little-sister silliness with Blanche. When the two actresses, wearing prim 1950s-style hats, link arms to walk out a door in one scene, Nash praises their exit as “very girlie.”

Lighter moments like that are quickly overshadowed by shocking, precisely staged fight sequences. An intricate showdown with almost balletic dexterity takes place when a drunken Stanley has his friends over for a card game. Infuriated by Blanche’s very existence, he strikes out at everyone around him.

One of Stanley’s poker buddies is Mitch — played by Burlington actor John Alexander — a bachelor with an unhealthy attachment to his ailing mother. In a part performed by Karl Malden on Broadway and in the film, the guy is a sweet sap. Blanche easily beguiles him into becoming her Gentleman Caller in what is really an act of desperation, as she sees her options in life growing ever more limited.

The intriguingly flawed characters in Streetcar employ words as weapons, shields against hurt or tools for seduction, rarely as a means of conveying fundamental thoughts and feelings. This is not passive entertainment; an audience is required to read — and think — between the lines. Critic Pauline Kael credited Williams with “some of the finest dialogue ever written by an American.”

Pelletier puts it a little differently: “His words are lovely to have in your mouth.”

Nash’s intention was to cast “actors who are in love with the language” — language so powerful, it seems, that “these people aren’t just pretending, they’re really going there.”

To Blume, Streetcar has longevity beyond any particular era and geography beyond any borders. “It’s part of the global canon of art, a gift of divine inspiration like the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David or Shakespeare,” she says. “Why do symphonies play Mozart all the time? Why do people go to see great paintings? It’s an act of faith to give yourself over to this play.”

Shakespeare’s lyrical work and William’s “kitchen-sink realism” might have more in common than meets the eye. “Brando as Stanley yelling ‘Stella!’ is akin to Hamlet’s ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy,” Nash says, admitting that he’s never actually seen the entire Kazan film.

Ditto for Blume, Newman and Pelletier. They all missed it on the big screen by virtue of being born too late. And, concerned the movie might unduly influence their individual approaches to the play, they’ve avoided the video.

Perhaps that’s wise. According to Kazan, Brando drove Vivien Leigh nuts — dangerous behavior, in that the British actress was clinically manic-depressive. At the beginning of the shoot, she complained, “You never know what he’s going to do next, where he’s going to be or what he’s going to say.”

That kind of anarchy is not a problem at the Burlington rehearsals, where the troupe carefully prepares to utilize the intimate dimensions of the FlynnStage. A sense of claustrophobia could work well for what Nash envisions as the “huge ideas, huge emotions and huge characters” of Streetcar trapped together in a cramped French Quarter apartment.

When a demolished Blanche leaves, once again depending “on the kindness of strangers,” the humble Kowalski home is likely to feel somewhat empty without the magic of her madness.

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