The Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is, remarkably, only the estimable New Haven theater’s first mounting of the famous Tennessee Williams play.
And it shows. The piece seems unexpectedly uncomfortable on the Rep’s University Theater stage, as if a house that has accommodated the likes of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Brecht and introduced audiences the debuts of exceptional writers like Sarah Ruhl and the works of Culture Clash doesn’t quite know what to do with some of the great mid-20th century American playwrights like Williams, O’Neill or Miller. The Rep does not have a long history of productions by the latter three or some of their less stellar contemporaries like Inge or Odets, but that’s their right in this theatrically vibrant town and the Rep certainly hasn’t suffered from the lack. The Rep certainly excels in so many other areas, why quibble?
But it’s hard to see how this production fulfills the long-held “dream” of director Mark Rucker to finally stage a production of Williams’ New Orleans-set drama. It is understandable that he has wanted to collaborate with actress Rene Augesen, a frequent colleague of his at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, on tackling the iconic role of Blanche DuBois. She has distinguished herself in a number of classic and contemporary roles at ACT and certainly seemed ready for “Streetcar.” But somehow since her casting, the production took on an additional focus through the casting of Joe Manganiello, the incredibly sexy and athletic Alcide Herveaux from HBO’s “True Blood,” in the equally iconic role of Stanley Kowalski, Blanche’s “Polack” brother-in-law and nemesis.
Somehow this combination skews the production fatefully in the direction of farce, with audience curiosity aroused around Manganiello’s ability to pull off a part made famous by Marlon Brando and faced with contrasting acting styles favored not only by the two leads but several other essential cast members. As a result, this production, whether intentionally or not, results in more laughter than I have ever seen in any previous production of the play. From the very start, as a weary, fearful Blanche wanders into the tired Marigny district of the Big Easy, the judgmental comments between Eunice Hubbell and her neighbor produce audience-wide guffaws. Throughout the evening, intimate, knowing jokes between characters become sit-com style punch lines, underscoring unnecessarily the ironic circumstances in which the characters find themselves.
Perhaps it’s because audiences are more familiar with the outline and outcome of the story, Woody Allen’s current “Blue Jasmine” notwithstanding, that we knowingly, perhaps even condescendingly, find humor in characters’ hopes and expectations that we know will work out disastrously by play’s end. Or maybe we’re looking for any reason to lighten the tension we see developing and avoid the clash of culture, wills and manipulation that we know are on the way.
Rucker’s direction is at first rather realistically-based, as the residents of the neighborhood spill across the stage in their everyday pursuits and Stanley and Stella Kowalski’s bare-bones apartment, aptly designed by Reid Thompson, dominates the stage. The back wall of the apartment is open to the rear of the stage, where an industrial style brick wall filled with 40’s style stenciled ads dominates. Later however, as Rucker gets a bit more fanciful, a sloping ramp in this back area will fill with a few vivid staged memories from Blanche’s life, as well as with some post-scene character movement, in one scene oddly humorous and attention-grabbing.
The Hubbell’s apartment, located directly above the Kowalski’s, is seldom seen in productions of “Streetcar,” and while filled with furniture and props, remains hidden by a curtain that reveals only 6 or so inches of the flat so that we are aware of activity and can detect essential movement. This can be a bit distracting, as what is important about the frequently battling Hubbell’s is that Williams wants you to be able to hear what’s going on there more than see it. At one jarring point in the production the entire set glides to stage right in order to accommodate some scenes on the small front porch, which temporarily breaks the fourth wall and raises curiosity, if not outright questions, about the adequacy of the set design.
Augesen’s and Rucker’s take on Blanche is probably a more realistic and reasonable one, if one spends time thinking about all that has happened to Blanche in her home town of Laurel, Mississippi and the behavior that has earned her a specific reputation back home. This Blanche is more notably worn, more clearly alcoholic, and more stubbornly self-focused.. She comes off as more of a cunning survivor than an ethereal fragile soul, as aptly demonstrated in an early scene with Manganiello’s Stanely, where she begins her well-honed flirting routine which despite her attempts to step up the effort, ultimately fails to impress her wary brother in law. Augesen presents us with a Blanche who is exhausted after years of crippling failure to make a go of it in an unforgiving Laurel, where she bears, as this production makes clear, the accumulated sins of her forebears whose reckless behavior left a overwhelming legacy that Blanche, absorbed in her own dreams and delusions of Southern gentry, could not finally save the family’s home, Belle Rive. Augesen shows how Blanche’s attempts to maintain face by clinging to increasingly impractical tenets of genteel behavior only serve to worsen her exhaustion and desperation and lead to her eventual breakdown.
Manganiello, even though he has played Stanley once before professionally, offers a fairly straightforward and one-note performance. His Stanley is loud, obnoxious and overbearing from the start, maintaining his masculine domination of his wife except for a few moments of need that should not be mistaken for compassion. His self-centeredness matches Blanche’s almost action for action, but his performance, although believable, is more wooden. The only moment where Manganiello exhibits any feeling other than selfishness and control is when he is seen holding on to his tiny daughter at the very end. It’s a shock to see his Stanley demonstrate such a capacity and perhaps hints at what Stella may see within. Of course, Manganiello is required to take off his shirt fairly early in the evening and shows some of the assets that have contributed to his popularity on “True Blood.” However, his torso is just a bit too chiseled for a 1947 factory worker and its doubtful he was a follower of Charles Atlas.
Sarah Sokolovic creates a Stella who rediscovers an intelligence she has sacrificed for life with Stanley, whose “bad boy” magnetism has proved too irresistible for the woman who fled Laurel years before. While she does find herself stuck between the sparring between Blanche and Stanley, Sokolovic assures that Stella rises well above being a mere dishrag. Instead, her Stella emerges as an almost noble character who shows a surprising ability to navigate the tension, willing to defend sister and husband to the other, while trying to offer what support and understanding she can to two characters who are irreconcilably set within their positions. At times though Sokolovic seems overwhelmed by the part, a few key moments when her Stella seems to lose character all together, unless she is trying to convey without literally doing so that Stella has thrown up her arms about dealing with the two.
Adam O’Byrne plays the key role of Mitch, the shy, somewhat mother-dominated coworker of Stanley’s who develops a genuine crush on Blanche. I liked that despite O’Byrne’s decent looks and gentle demeanor, Rucker and the actor insist that the character demonstrate an innate strength in addition to a sense of honor. I also liked how Rucker and Augesen emphasized the conflict within Blanche regarding how to proceed with her relationship with Mitch. As we learn during the play, a sweet, simple courtship is a challenge to Blanche who therefore must temper her natural inclinations. At the same time I detected in Augesen’s performance a more-than-slight revulsion toward a man who defied her “type” in both demeanor and age.
In their brief but effective appearances, April Matthis and Marc Damon Johnson created distinctive and winning characters in the fiery Hubbells, who also came across as supportive friends of the Kowalski’s. Nick Erkelens makes a fine professional debut as a young newspaper collector who falls tentatively under Blanche’s spell, although Rucker adds a visual joke that seems to underscore his attempts to punch up Williams’ punch lines for audience’s amusement.
Hunter Kaczorowski has contributed a selection of costumes that capture Stanley’s working class masculinity and Stella’s thrift (including a snood!), while providing a wardrobe full of colorful and creative dresses, wraps and furs for Blanche’s outfits that are inappropriate and out of proportion for a small Mississippi town. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting reflects the subtle changes that occur when a lamp is turned off or on, or a bright red Chinese lantern shade is placed over an empty bulb, particularly as Blanche attempts to manipulate the apartment’s lighting to hide the ravages of age. At a tense dramatic moment in the third act, Strawbridge suddenly floods a section of the stage in staggeringly bright light as Blanche is forced to discard all pretense and face some truths.
Although the evening approaches three hours in length, Rucker never lets the play lag and in fact it doesn’t really feel as if three hours have passed by. The actors, despite some contrasting styles, do enough to command our attention, and the humor that Rucker has apparently chosen to highlight provides some additional, unexpected moments of amusement. Not to say that the evening is not fulfilling, it absolutely is, thanks in large part to Williams’ spectacular language and ingenious plotting and in this case Augesen’s take on Blanche.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” plays through October 12 at the Yale Repertory Theatre’s University Theatre on York Street in New Haven. For tickets and information, contact the Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
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