Is A Streetcar Named Desire Tennessee Williams' best play? Not really. Like so much of Williams' work, it's grossly overwritten. Williams attempts, with much success (but also a little failure), to wring every sweaty bead of poetry from the garish, hardscrabble streets of New Orleans' French Quarter. Even when the play opened in 1947, Brooks Atkinson, writing for The New York Times, said, "By the usual Broadway standards, A Streetcar Named Desire is too long; not all those words are essential." And it's not gotten any shorter or less verbose with the passing decades.
In spite of its flaws, this play, the subsequent movie, and the original cast of both have impacted our culture immeasurably. Mention A Streetcar Named Desire in a crowded room sometime and watch what happens. Fifty-seven years after its debut, young 21st-century men drop to their knees, tear at their collars, and howl, "Stella! Steeeeeeella!" For better or worse, A Streetcar Named Desire defined American masculinity for the second half of the 20th century. Very likely, it also defined desire.
Theatre Memphis' production is beautiful to look at. Michael Walker's richly detailed set captures both the grit and the European grandeur of New Orleans' French Quarter. Brandon Fischer's soft, shadowy lighting is all gaslight flicker and purple neon haze, making everything that much more exotic. Director Jerry Chipman has assembled a talented and energetic cast every bit as handsome as Walker's set to fill the grimy space, and every actor brings something meaty to the table. But the chemistry is way off. Scenes that should sizzle barely heat up, and it is difficult to find a sympathetic character in the bunch.
Christina Wellford Scott's Blanche is a complete cipher. She is a raw nerve and a tough femme fatale all at once. She's pitched her voice into its lowest register and given it that raspy quality that only comes from too much whiskey, too many cigarettes, and too many all-night parties. It's a bit like Joanne Woodward's performance in The Fugitive Kind with a little Marlene Dietrich tossed in just for flavor. But because of this toughness bordering on meanness, we are never allowed to watch as Blanche's greatest survival instinct -- her ability to keep up appearances -- fails. Scott wears her weariness and her hurt like she wears her pretty dresses and her rhinestones. We know her obsessive bathing has less to do with relaxing than washing away her secret sins, and a sick carnality is present in virtually everything she says and does. We know she's had a tragic time of it, but we also know that her ape-like brother-in-law, Stanley, is right about her from the start.
Lanky and rippling, sporting a chest and belly of thick black hair, Greg Boller looks like a Stanley to be reckoned with. And when he strikes a brooding pose, it can make you forget that Marlon Brando ever played the role. Except for the post-fight moment when he bellows for Stella to come back, however, he speaks in a pinched, nasal whine with no gut in it whatsoever. He doesn't come off as unrefined but vindictive, weak, and cruel. Scott's Blanche is so much more grounded, earthy, and dangerous than Stanley that it throws the entire play off kilter.
As lonely and worried as he is, it's hard to imagine Barclay Roberts' Mitch ever being attracted to Scott's Blanche. Roberts has made Mitch, a quiet man whose good manners far exceed his ability to think, into a nebbish who's timid and unassertive. In his quiet way, Mitch is as volatile as anyone in the play, and though he is given to backing down, he's physically powerful and not easily intimidated. Roberts' performance is sweet and endearing. Even his failed attempt to rape Blanche is somehow sad and adorable. But that's not Mitch's function. Like the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie, he represents a kind, tainted hope: a prize that might cause more harm than good. Roberts' Mitch is a gem, entirely unable to do the wrong thing.
Stella has to know she's made certain sacrifices for those "things that happen in the dark that make everything else okay." And Stanley's blows have to take some toll. Her self-destructive relationship is like that of a moth to a flame. Katherine Albrecht's Stella is light as a feather and likable but generally too upbeat. Stella's driven to Stanley, and she makes his excuses with conviction. But everyone, even Stella, knows that they are excuses.
So many near misses in one production are unfortunate but not completely tragic. This is still a beautifully realized production, and the actors have more than enough personal magnetism to keep you watching and enjoying. There's just not much chemistry to keep things exciting.
Through April 4th.