Massachusetts’ acclaimed Williamstown Theatre Festival is presenting on Audible, the audiobook and podcast division of Amazon, a brilliant production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Robert O’Hara. It features a stellar cast.
The festival was all set to do the production on their home stage this past summer, but the pandemic halted that. But when you have a cast headed by six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald and what is arguably the greatest American play, the show simply must go on. And that is just what the creative and inventive actors, director, and sound editor have done.
On Dec. 3, the date of the original Broadway opening night in 1947, Audible “dropped” (as they say in the business) their stunning new production, now available for all time. All you have to do is tune in, and Williams’ masterwork is yours to enjoy. Marlon Brando, the original Stanley, modestly said, “In ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ we had under us one of the best written plays ever produced, and we couldn’t miss.”
Speaking of Stanley, INtown’s readers may recall that I flew to Denver three years ago to catch a groundbreaking production of “Macbeth,” starring Alliance Theatre alumnus Ariel Shafir, the New York based theatre, film, and television actor. In “Streetcar” he smolders as an unpredictable, mesmerizing Stanley Kowalski. He and Ms. McDonald are fluid fire together: Their final scene, when Blanche is alone with Stanley, is terrifying and unforgettable.
I’m quite sure that you have more than a passing familiarity with “Streetcar”; so no plot summary will be given. You know we’re in New Orleans’ steamy French Quarter, where Stanley and Stella Kowalski (a fine Carla Gugino) are comfortably ensconced in a two-room apartment. Stella is the “baby sister” of Blanche DuBois, who shows up one evening, seeking solace and comfort and a “cleft in the rock of the world that I could hide in,” as she puts it.
I’m sure some may be thinking: Well, it can’t be that great if you can’t see the actors. Granted, a “radio play” is an adjustment; but once you accept the syntax and relax into Williams’ incredible language and the superb talent of the actors, all is well. Speaking of language, listen to Arthur Miller, who saw the original cast of the play: “On first hearing “Streetcar”—and one truly heard every word of it in that first production—the impression was not that of one-liners or “poetry” but of language flowing from the soul. A writer’s soul, a single voice was almost miraculously enveloping the stage. But remarkably, each character’s speech seemed at the same time uncannily his own.”
So like that first production, you won’t miss a word. You sit back and let the characters lift you to a new level of desire, longing, devastation, and yes, even humor. At the center of the play there is Audra McDonald’s Blanche. Even those mightily impressed with this actor’s gifts (and we all know her incredible singing voice) may be taken aback with her Blanche’s vulnerability, power, complexity and sensitivity. And yes, Blanche can be silly, even while projecting a sense of loss: “I can’t stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or vulgar action.” But she is “very adaptable—to circumstances.”
Shafir makes Stanley his own: Stanley, the brute who smashed all the light bulbs on his wedding night (according to Stella), is more complex than one might think. Though he may lack a fine education, he’s very smart. He has feelings that can be hurt: When Stella goes upstairs after the poker night brawl and he bawls out his famous “Stelllaahh,” he’s literally crying for her.
His speech pattern is unidentifiable: He could be from anywhere, but I hear a grown-up New Orleans street kid who sounds straight from the crooked sidewalks of the French Quarter. And his sexuality is a palpable thing. He also does the near-impossible: He makes you forget Brando, certainly for awhile. With him around, you understand that the Quarter can be an unforgiving place.
Carla Gugino’s Stella is excellent; she’s able to show a sincere love for her sister, even while reminding Blanche that “there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant.”
Sullivan Jones succeeds in revealing the stalwart Mitch as a would-be gentleman who almost becomes Blanche’s savior, but declines when he learns of her questionable past. Blanche’s “Death—the opposite is desire” is too much for him; and his compassion for her, revealed in the final scene, comes too late.
Blanche and Stanley’s final scene together is chilling, sorrowful, and hallucinogenic, aided by jungle-like sounds and music, composed by sound editor Lindsay Jones. Mr. Jones’ work cannot be praised too much.
Other cast members include Cesar J. Rosado, Joe Goldammer, Carmen M. Herlihy, Brian Lucas, Joel Reuben Ganz, and Stacey Raymond.
It may astonish you to learn that the actors were alone in their closets, sometimes literally, when they taped the play over a two-day period. Director O’Hara, one of America’s finest, decided that allowing the actors to focus on their characters and the script was best performed when they could not see one another. Hence their concentration is totally on voices, sounds, music, and those legendary lines of dialogue.
I very much hope that you give yourself this experience. There’s no denying the play takes something out of you; it’s not for children. But if you’re a “Streetcar” lover (and what theatre aficionado isn’t?), you can’t afford to miss this. Adjust to sound and imagination only and “relax—sink into it,” as Edward Albee would say.