Theatre Review: ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Serenbe

Deborah Bowman as Blanche DuBois (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)
Deborah Bowman as Blanche DuBois (Photo by BreeAnne Clowdus)

By Manning Harris

Serenbe Playhouse’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is currently running at Serenbe’s Art Farm Stage, outdoors, through June 28. The play is directed by Artistic Director Brian Clowdus, whose company specializes in “site specific” locations for each show.

Everything about “A Streetcar Named Desire” is legendary. Many consider it the greatest American play, although some will argue for Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” I vote for “Streetcar.” Like the others, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

When it opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson declared, “Williams has spun a poignant and luminous story.” Eric Bentley, in his book “What Is Theatre?” called it “the master-drama of the generation.” And Time Magazine writer T. E. Kalem later said, “The inevitability of a great work of art is that you cannot imagine the time when it didn’t exist.”

Marlon Brando, the original Stanley, often considered the greatest actor of his generation, modestly said, “In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ we had under us one of the best-written plays ever produced, and we couldn’t miss.” He was part of a cast that included Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden; they repeated their roles in the celebrated 1951 movie version, with one exception: Vivien Leigh played Blanche DuBois, instead of Ms. Tandy, and won her second Oscar (the first was for Scarlett O’Hara).

You can’t pretend these actors didn’t exist; they’re part of the Zeitgeist, as is the play. It’s like talking about “The Wizard of Oz” without mentioning Judy Garland. The challenge for other actors, and it’s a large one, is to make the roles their own, and regard Brando and Leigh as inspirations, if you will. If you think I’m making too much of the original actors, listen to playwright Arthur Miller, who saw the original cast: “This production, like few others of any play I ever saw, became the play, it was impossible to separate them, the cast had left themselves behind, became the characters.” Many have seen the movie; it may surprise you to learn that both Brando and Williams said that Leigh was actually more suited for Blanche than Tandy.

In the 1940’s Tennessee Williams lived in New Orleans near a street called Royal. Up and down this avenue, running on the same track, were two streetcars: one named Desire, the other Cemetery. This struck Williams’ poetic, symbolically-prone mind as having a special significance.

An out of work schoolteacher named Blanche DuBois (Deborah Bowman) has made her way to the French Quarter of New Orleans (the Serenbe version downplays the specific city, indicating the play could be set anywhere) to seek shelter with her only living relative, her sister Stella (Anne Marie Gideon), who is married to a rough-hewn factory worker named Stanley Kowalski (Matthew Davis).

Blanche and Stella grew up in a fine old home in Mississippi called Belle Reeve (“beautiful dream”). Blanche cannot understand how Stella can be satisfied in a so-so apartment (“What are you doing in a place like this?”); but especially she can’t conceive how she can live with Stanley, whom Blanche calls “common” and “bestial,” and comments that no part of a gentleman is in his nature.

As for Stanley, he takes an instant dislike to Blanche (he perceives her disdain of him), especially when he learns Belle Reeve has been lost. He’s quite sure she’s made off with the money from Belle Reeve; he observes Blanche’s nice clothes and furs and jewelry and says to Stella, “Here’s your plantation, or what was left of it, here!” Stella says he’s being ridiculous.

There’s a ray of hope for Blanche, for a time, and it’s Mitch (very well played by Daniel Parvis). Mitch, who works with Stanley, has the gentlemanly qualities that Blanche is seeking, and he seems to understand her predicament, at least in part.

I must commend all the actors for tackling this towering masterpiece of a play, which has the most incredible dialogue: the diction is a masterpiece of simplicity and clarity yet raised magically to a poetic, lyrical level. It simply becomes hypnotic. Its effect on an audience is stunning; much of the evening you could hear a pin drop. This is tribute to Williams’ genius, of course, but also the professionalism and concentration of these actors.

Deborah Bowman, in playing what has been called the “American female Hamlet,” needs finesse, cultivated femininity, sensitivity, and fragility on the one hand; but she must also be flirtatious and have a bit of the tiger in her (Williams said that); in addition, her psyche is slowly disintegrating so that her final line, “Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” is both heartbreaking and shattering. Ms. Bowman gives a heroic performance; she captures Blanche’s feistiness and flirtatiousness beautifully; I would also like to see a bit more of her diaphanous fragility. Bear in mind that Blanche is onstage virtually the entire time; Vivien Leigh, who also played it on the London stage, told Willliams, “You have created an actor-killer part!”

Matthew Davis, who has done much work in films, does a masterful job as Stanley, revealing his cunning and subtlety, as well as his fabled sensuality. He does much more than bellow, “Stelllaahh!”

Anne Marie Gideon’s Stella gains strength throughout the piece, even as she gives in to Stanley in virtually everything. I would like to see a bit more chutzpah to her Stella, which I fully expected Ms. Gideon to bring. It balances Stanley’s boorishness and gives Blanche’s fading hopes more of a fighting chance. However, Ms. Gideon’s scenes with Mr. Davis are full of longing and eroticism. “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem–unimportant.”

As I mentioned Mr. Parvis’ Mitch is as good as bread, the salt of the earth. He makes Blanche’s “betrayal” of him very poignant indeed.

I don’t quite know why Brian Clowdus and Assistant Director Ryan Oliveti chose to make the set so white and almost suburban; I don’t really see the “dump” that Blanche sees.

John Burke’s music is lovely; but it must never overpower the dialogue, which it does a time or two: I couldn’t make out the play’s last line (“This game is seven-card stud.”) Thanks, by the way, to performances by Shelby Folks, Cherise James, Shannon McCarren, David-Aaron Roth, and Terrence Smith.

These minor quibbles aside, Serenbe and Director Clowdus have made a giant leap in this landmark production of a landmark play. Arthur Miller said that Blanche is “one of the sacred misfits,” an outsider who serves to remind us of “the forsaken tenderness, the holiness of the spirit of man.” There is too much greatness here to miss.

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