By Walter Rutledge
There have been many revivals of Tennessee Williams’ Pultizer Prize winning stage play A Streetcar Named Desire.
The new production now playing at the Broadhurst Theater is the first Broadway production to feature an interracial cast with African-American actors in the leading roles. The strong cast and straightforward direction by Emily Mann captures the power and essence of Williams’ masterpiece making the actor’s color or race inconsequential.
We are introduced to the residence of Elysian Fields Avenue in the French Quarter of New Orléans. There, in a ground floor two-room flat lives Stella and her husband Stanley. Their lives will be forever changed when Stella’s older sister Blanche comes for an extended visit.
Daphine Rubin-Vega as Stella is a conflicted character. She is from a family of “heritage and breeding” but is drawn to a rough and controlling working class man. When she asserts any defiance it is met with verbal or physical abuse, but her submissive nature is her true power. .
Rubin-Vega navigates this with a passive strength. After being brutalized by her husband she seeks refuge in her landlords apartment only to quickly return and make love to her husband. One evening Stella suggests to her sister Blanche that maybe she should not have anymore to drink, and she then hides the alcohol from her.
Blair Underwood as Stanley is appropriately dislikeable yet understandably desirable. He is brutish and volatile. Stanley inflicts his will on his weaker wife; but becomes vulnerable and almost child-like when she abandons him.
It is clear Underwood has the most challenging role in the production, due to it’s iconic association with Marlon Brando. He does not emulate Brando, instead Underwood has developed Stanley with his own brand of machismo. Stanley is an alpha-male who flaunts his physical prowess and his physique to the delight and disdain of Stella (and the audience).
Wood Harris’ Mitch is in total contrast to Stanley. A shy bachelor, who is taking care of a dying mother; he is a loner in search of a champion. When he meets the beguiling Blanche, he thinks he has met a proper southern lady. When a vengeful Stanley learns the secrets of Blanche’s past he tells Mitch; but it still takes alcohol to give Mitch the courage to confront Blanche.
Nicole Ari Parker stars as the doomed Blanche DuBois. Her portrayal as the fragile faded beauty, slowly slipping into alcoholism and eventual madness is sincere. Blanche arrives at her sister’s and brother in-laws hovel on Elysian Fields Avenue after taking a streetcar named Desire. She is greeted by the upstairs neighbor Eunice the friendly and loquacious wife of Stella’s landlord.
Her immediate reaction to the accommodations is shock and disbelief. She is already heading towards destruction, but the road to her fate still has a few twists and turns. Parker takes us on this journey with a complete understanding of the role; she has created an almost antebellum aura for the character and a sympathetic pathos. Even before the final scene we feel her pain.
Blanche has lost everything and is now seeking refuge in the only place left to her. Unfortunately it is in the home of Stanley, a man who will play an integral part of her destruction. After the graphic and disturbing rape scene, Blanche has a nervous breakdown. Her attacker Stanley forces Stella to have her sister committed to a mental institution .
Blanche surrenders to her fate, with the style and grace prescribed by her lineage, and willingly leaves her miserable surroundings. She retreats back to a more comfortable delusional world, to what she has come to know as love and acceptance, “the kindness of strangers”. Rose Williams the sister of playwright Tennessee Williams is believed to be the inspiration for the character Blanche DuBois. She struggled with her mental health throughout her life and later became incapacitated after a lobotomy.
The remaining cast members create a good supportive Bayou mix of characters. They include white trash Eunice (Amelia Campbell) and her husband Steve (Matthew Salivar) who are the landlords and friends of the couple. Additional charaters; the woman from down the block (Carmen de Lavallade), Stanley’s friend and co-worker Pablo (Jacinto Taras Riddick), the boy soliciting donations (Aaron Clifton Moten), the doctor (Count Stovall) and hospital matron (Rosa Evangelina Arredondo) bring Elysian Fields Avenue to life.
The set designed by Eugene Lee is primarily two small rooms separated by a few “hide away” curtains. The room’s dilapidated look is completed by furniture with flaking paint, wooden crates that substitute for kitchen chairs, bare light bulbs and windows shutters with missing and crooked slates. A fan in a window over the bed completed the summertime effect, the small red streamer attached to the cover danced in the only breeze. The claustrophobic feeling is intensified after a pretentious relative (Blanche) with too much luggage comes for an extended visit.
Speaking of dance the funeral procession that opens the second act choreographed by Camille A. Brown was a clever addition to this production. It is just a simple crossing, not a full-out dirge and suggests the everyday occurrences unique to the region. Edward Pierce’s lighting created a hazy New Orléans summer that seemed to hang over the stage. At times sunlight brightly beamed through broken wooden shutters into the apartment.
Paul Tazewell’s costumes visually distinguish the social class differences between Blanche and the rest of the Elysian Fields Avenue occupants. Her tailored suits, tulle petticoat gowns, and ornate trinkets set her apart from the cloth wearing frocks of the other women. Composer Terrance Blanchard’s score puts the right “complexion” on the production, offering an authentic New Orléans French Quarter jazz sound.
The original production of A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on December 3, 1947. Elia Kazan directed the production, and the cast included Marlon Brando (Stanley), Jessica Tandy (Blanche), Kim Hunter (Stella), and Karl Malden (Mitch). In 1948 Tandy received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, and the play garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In August 1953 the Summer Theatre Company at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri presented the first all-black production of Streetcar Named Desire . Thomas D. Pawley, a former classmate of Williams at the University of Iowa, directed the production.
In Photo: 1) Woods Harris, Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood, Daphine Rubin-Vega 2) Blair Underwood, Daphine Rubin-Vega 3) Blair Underwood 4) Blair Underwood and Daphine Rubin-Vega 5) Woods Harris and Nicole Ari Parker 6) Nicole Ari Parker 7) Nicole Ari Parker and Blair Underwood 7) Set
Ken Howard Photographer