REVIEW: "A Streetcar Named Desire"—Costa Mesa Playhouse
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
"...Blanche, who wanted so much to stay a lady..."
An astounding seventy‐five years after its Broadway premiere, Tennessee Williams' “A Streetcar Named Desire” remains one of the most highly regarded works in the American theater.
Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski are still Williams' most flamboyant creatures, and their names are virtually synonymous with two kinds of sexuality. Delicate Blanche, virile Stanley: the feminine spirit studiously “refined,” achingly vulnerable; the masculine spirit ascendant, stampeding.
Blanche is the most vivid of all Williams' “moth” characters, those defeated by circumstance; Stanley is the ultimate version of the rugged Williams beefcake. The battle between these two titanic fantasy figures—the elemental antagonism and attraction that bind them—is the occasion of Williams' fullest play, the canon's one undoubted masterpiece, and a serious contender for the best American play ever written.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is the joyous culmination of Williams' early period; the conflict that the play dramatizes marks a natural line of development from “Battle of Angels” to “You Touched Me” to “Summer and Smoke.” In each play, a panting, high‐strung woman is pitted against a prodigiously sensual man.
But in “Streetcar,” the combatants are more of a match for each other than in any other of his works. For all his bravado, his peacock strut and his lord of the manor authority, Stanley is threatened by Blanche's airs and he is titillated by her disgust with his commonness. And for all her upper crust refinement, Blanche is drawn to Stanley's emphatic virility at the same time that she is petrified by him. Almost unconsciously, she goes to work on her brother‐in‐law, coyly spraying him with her perfume, teasing him with the tickle of her furs. Sniffing warily, flexing like wrestlers warming up for the bout, these two don't need much time to get each other's “number.”
Indeed, the haunting performance Kendall Sinclair (“Silent Sky”) gives in the heart-breaking role of Mr. Williams' deteriorating Southern belle, combined with the orchestration of mesmerizing moods and inner torments Director Michael Serna (“The Christians”) has wreathed within the play, is one seldom projected with the sensitivity and clarity as we witnessed on the Costa Mesa Playhouse stage this past weekend.
In this thrilling illustration, melees—titanic and degrading—within the filthy New Orleans slum, where a lonely and decaying Blanche DuBois comes to live with her sister and her low-born brother-in-law, have been staged by the prescient director with such tumultuous energy that the ambience in the theater fairly throbs with exasperation, before settling sharply into spent and aching quiet. Hate-oozing personal encounters between the lost lady and the brutish man are mounted with such shrewd manipulation that one feels the heat of them. And with Aspen Rogers’ moody lights and a dialogue of real poetic richness, Director Serna has wrought us our essential heartache and despair in a perfect play.
Blessed with a beautifully molded and fluently expressive face, a pair of eyes that can flood with emotion and a body that moves with spirit and style, Ms. Sinclair has created a new Blanche DuBois—a woman of even greater fullness, torment and tragedy. Although Mr. Williams' writing never precisely makes clear the logic of her disintegration before the story begins—why anyone of her breeding would become an undisciplined tramp—Ms. Sinclair makes implicitly cogent every moment of the lady on the stage.
Her mental confusions, her self-deceptions, the agonies of her lacerated nerves and her final, unbearable madness, brought on by a brutal act of rape, are clearly conveyed by the actress with a tremendous concentration and economy of power. Likewise, her fumblings for affections are beautifully and poignantly done.
No less brilliant, however, within his area is Jeff Rolle Jr. (“A Behanding in Spokane”), in the role of the loud, lusty, brawling, brutal, amoral Polish brother-in-law. Mr. Rolle creates an indelible impression here, and carries all the energy and steel-spring characteristics required that makes his character so vivid. Highly charged, his despairs seem that much more pathetic and his comic moments that much more slyly enjoyed than other Stanley portrayals.
The august cast includes the brilliant Holly Seidcheck (“Waiting for Godot”) as the torn young sister and wife, Stella; Angel Correa (“Lost in Yonkers”) as Blanche’s timid, boorish suitor, Mitch; Brooke Lewis (“Mr. Burns”) as the upstairs landlady, Eunice; Caesar Souza (Political Podcast: “We Made It Podcast”) and Jeff Tierney (“Broadway: The Best of And Backwards!”) as poker pals, Steve and Pablo; Grayson Richmond (“Thump in the Night”) as a young newsboy collector; and Lee Ann Russell (“The Wedding Singer”) as a strange woman in the neighborhood. All present a performance that is a work of great beauty, yet deeply disturbing. All fill out the human pattern faultlessly within a sleazy French Quarter environment that is so fitly created that you can almost sense its sweatiness and smells.
When Blanche arrives in honkytonk New Orleans, shadowed by her dismissal from her teaching job for having seduced a student, and by her eviction from the flea‐bag hotel, she tries to disguise her shame—the “truth” about herself—with the trappings of antebellum charm. Her continual baths are her pathetic attempt to revive herself. To escape from the nagging memory of cheap sex in crummy hotels, she clings to social niceties, the tag ends of a shabby genteel heritage, and pays dearly for her crime against humanity. She is a poor soul, but she has been sinful, and so she must end unhappily.
“He acts like an animal, has an animal's habits!… Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is—Stanley Kowalski — survivor of the Stone Age!” But Blanche, with her sexual duplicity, her double life lurking guiltily beneath the surface, loses the contest, and Stanley ends up punishing her for her promiscuous sex life and maladjustment. To him, Blanche is a cagey fighter, a stubborn opponent, and a challenge to Stanley's domination of his wife Stella. “She was a tiger,” writes Tennessee Williams. “She had much more strength than he, and she surrendered to him out of desire.”
Finally stripped of all her self-respect, Blanche goes mad, and Stanley “gets” the dame who called him common. He wins: the brute stalks the earth unchecked. Williams appreciates Blanche's culture and he certainly feels for her as one of his born victims, but he “chooses” Stanley; the materialist triumphs over the romantic.
Conditioned to equate the natural with the good, we too may like Stanley—at first. His caustic wit is the antidote to Blanche's fussy pretenses. But Stanley ends up not the noble savage but a pitiless victor. His willful destruction of a lost woman convicts him to the ranks of Williams' cads. The spoils may go to Stanley, but Blanche, in the final round, has our sympathy.
Costa Mesa Playhouse’s heady, driving, wrenching play is no plain moral fable, then. Thickly textured, with its ambivalent distribution of rewards and punishments, its complex pattern of sympathy and disapproval, its insecure, electric, unheroic hero and its demented, strong‐willed, esthetic victim, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of the most charged and fevered works in American drama, a play that rides high on its own unresolved ambiguities and resounding internal clashes. And I recommend it heartily.
WITH: HOLLY SEIDCHECK as Stella; JEFF ROLLE JR. as Stanley; ANGEL CORREA as Mitch; BROOKE LEWIS as Eunice; KENDALL SINCLAIR as Blanche; CAESAR SOUZA as Steve; JEFF TIERNEY as Pablo; GRAYSON RICHMOND as A Young Collector; LEEANN RUSSELL as A Strange Woman.
“A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE” by Tennessee Williams, now playing through April 10th at Costa Mesa Playhouse; Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 2PM, Additional Performance Thursday, May 31st at 8PM; Directed by Michael Serna; Assistant Directed by Mark Tillman; Stage Manager Madison Huckaby Budds; Lighting Designer Aspen Rogers; Costume Designer Beatrice Gray; Set Designer Michael Serna. For tickets and further information, visit: https://costamesaplayhouse.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report