Blanche DuBois arrives on stage in a white jacket, with a matching purse and gloves. Within seconds of his entrance half a scene later, Stanley Kowalsky takes his shirt off. Blanche and Stanley stand side-by-side, eying each other and measuring each other’s strengths. Blanche carries all the paraphernalia of desire. Stanley, a hulking ton of flesh, is the seeming thing itself.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” first premiered at the Schubert Theater in 1947 and the Yale Rep’s current staging highlights many of the play’s New Haven connections. Blanche and her sister Stella are both played by School of Drama graduates, René Augesen DRA ’96 and Sarah Sokolovic DRA ’11. According to director Mark Rucker DRA ’92, Van Gogh’s “The Night Café,” which hangs in the Yale University Art Gallery, inspired the play’s third scene. Rucker and the set designers revisited the piece as they designed their set, which is built on a moving platform. The lighting creates a claustrophobic yellow fog that traps the characters within their tiny apartment.
“Streetcar” begins with Blanche’s arrival at her sister Stella’s flat in the French quarter. She’s taking a leave of absence from her job as a high school teacher, she says. She’s had a fit of nerves. Compared to her demanding, compulsive sister, Stella is a pushover. She gives in to Blanche’s need for flattery and puts up no resistance to her husband’s violence.
Joe Manganiello, no stranger to the South from his role as a vampire in “True Blood,” takes on the role of Stanley. His best contribution is his matinée idol good looks. Yes, Manganiello’s body ripples out from under his mechanic’s tank top and his very presence is threatening. But his speeches as Stanley fail to deliver on the promise of his posture. Stanley’s anger is meant to be powerful, but Maganeillo blurs his words in rage. He tends to ignore the fine distinctions within Tennessee Williams’s language.
And this wouldn’t be a problem if the poetry that makes up the dialogue in “Streetcar” weren’t so fundamental to the play.
Williams fills each scene with unforgettable lines — Blanche’s meditation on the length of New Orleans afternoons, for instance. “When an hour isn’t just an hour,” she says, “but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands.” These lines are especially important for Blanche, because they make up her armor—or what’s left of it. Blanche imagines herself in a more beautiful world than she can have. In her portrayal, Augesen brilliantly draws out that desire and Blanche’s accompanying delusion. She moves with a self-defeating, self-conscious poise. She flings her wrists limply. When she recalls her past, you can see real fear in her eyes.
This production of “Streetcar” also attempts to emphasize the goings on of the rest of New Orleans: the blind woman selling flowers along the street, the couple bickering in the upstairs apartment. While these encounters do provide some color, they distract from the main action. The director’s decision to follow several dramatic moments with a pumped-in recording of a passing train, for instance, only takes the audience away from the rich characters we’re watching.
It’s sad that the portrayals of the minor characters — Stella, for instance — also fall by the wayside in this staging. Stella holds the second to last lines of the play, and is as near to a moral compass as Williams allows, but Sokolovic never really earns our sympathy. She alternates between fussy, half-serious anger against Blanche and Stanley, and total submission to their whims. Once the drama escalates in the last act of the play, I had almost forgotten her, despite the addition of her newborn baby.
Still, these are minor distractions. The Rep recognizes that “Streetcar” is ultimately a play about the fragility of lies, of the rose-tinted fantasies that Blanche invents for herself. As Williams argues, and as you can see in this production, there is something dangerous under these lies. It’s a human instinct, a gnawing impulse that consumes lives, throws men and women together and then propels them apart.
Blanche believes there is poetry in love, but sometimes it is only a spectacle of the flesh.