The cluelessness of strangers

Arden Theatre Company presents Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire

In
4 minute read
Katharine Powell playing Blanche onstage at the Arden. She wears a sheer white dress and looks down pensively.
Audiences have to hold some hope for Blanche: Katharine Powell in the Arden’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

As the harsh light of day disrupts her reverie in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois expresses her operating salvo: “I don’t want realism—I want magic!” At its best, Tennessee Williams’s eternally beguiling, haunting study of kinship and cruelty in New Orleans overflows with both. The Arden Theatre Company’s long-delayed staging, on the other hand, offers neither.

This production eked out a single performance on March 12, 2020, before the theater industry—and the world—collectively shut down to combat the coronavirus. The ensuing two years, followed by a repeated rehearsal process and uninterrupted preview period, should have allowed the company and director Terrence J. Nolen the time to fully contemplate and comprehend the characters and their intricate relationships to each other. Or so you would think.

Seeking a spark

Instead, the interpretation that made it to the stage on opening night looked general, was performed ploddingly, and lacked much in the way of genuine spark or tension. Williams’s script is so solid that a company often has to do very little to make it sing—the late composer André Previn, who adapted it for the operatic stage, rightly described the urtext as an opera with no music. The charged energy between emotionally stunted Blanche and her volatile, violent brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski builds naturally to a shattering climax. The audience waits on tenterhooks for the other shoe to drop.

Instead, at the Arden, we’re greeted by a shoe factory with a broken conveyer belt and a pile of stilettos on the floor. The physical production captures nothing of the stifling, claustrophobic world of the French Quarter—apart from looking huge, set designer Paige Hathaway’s rendering of the Kowalskis’ two-room flat is open and airy, with no supporting walls to close in on the crowd of three who occupy it uncomfortably. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting is surprisingly high-key, especially when the text itself describes an atmosphere largely bathed in shadow and illusion until the world of fantasy can no longer be supported.

Lacking the characters’ journey

Williams wrote a mordantly funny play, but here, the actors regularly perform like they’re in a boulevard comedy—in its worst moments, the Southern fried affect comes across as cousin to Designing Women. Katharine Powell’s mystery-free Blanche is the chief offender, though you sense she received no help from Nolen in credibly crafting the character’s journey. Streetcar doesn’t work if Blanche’s tragic decline is telegraphed from the moment she arrives on that metaphorically named trolley; she teeters on the brink, but you have to hold out hope for her salvation. Here, she slips immediately over the edge on her rickety high heels. (Olivera Gajic designed the generally acceptable costumes.)

Powell’s Blanche is frenetic and obvious. She rarely delivers a line to a scene partner, instead preferring to face the audience and soliloquize. Her affect is bawdy and crude—shockingly so in the scene with the Young Collector (a sweetly nervous Giacomo Fizzano), where she bats her eyes and licks her lips like Mae West. I found much of her blocking completely nonsensical: there is no way that this character, whose name symbolizes purity and who clings to the vestiges of proper Southern womanhood, would mount her intended paramour Harold Mitchell (Akeem Davis) in the middle of an argument.

In fairness, Powell has little to go on. Matteo Scammell’s Stanley entirely lacks menace or magnetism. He’s clearly studied Marlon Brando’s legendary performance and come away with half an accent. Together, they strike few sparks, and even the uncomfortable denouement of their relationship—which should be doubly problematic 75 years onward—fails to rattle or shock. Anger, resentment, and recrimination come across as little more than annoyance.

The always watchable Davis imbues Mitch with the right note of quiet dignity, and despite a wandering accent, Emilie Krause delivers an emotionally connected, appropriately conflicted Stella. Walter DeShields makes a strong impression in the small role of Steve Hubbell, Stanley’s landlord and poker buddy. I often wished I was watching a production with him as Stanley and Krause as Blanche.

A faded illusion

In the play’s penultimate scene, as Blanche fully breaks from reality, she dons her finest silk dress and white fox furs, convinced that she’ll be received adoringly by her rich college beau. The clothes are beautiful, but she wears them uncomfortably. The tiara in her hair sparkles, but it’s rhinestone—“next door to glass,” as Stella tells Stanley. The illusion has finally faded, the elements don’t line up. Such is the case, too, with the Arden’s disappointingly desultory return to live theater.

What, When, Where

A Streetcar Named Desire. By Tennessee Williams, directed by Terrence J. Nolen. $18-$53. Through February 13, 2022, at Arden Theatre Company’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.

A streaming version of this production will be made available at a later date.

The Arden requires all patrons to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination to attend a live performance. Audience members must always wear a mask within the building.

Accessibility

The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Open-captioned and audio-described performances will be held on January 28 at 8pm and January 29 at 2pm. Assistive listening devices are always available. For more information on these performances, or to purchase accessible seating in advance, call (215) 922-1122 or email [email protected].

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