Welcome to the Lower Depths, Southern Style
Tennessee Williams’ superb drama, "A Streetcar Named Desire," presently being performed by Inland Valley Repertory Theatre at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont through March 18th, is a brilliant, implacable play about the disintegration of a young, gently-reared southern woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. Susannah Hough gives a superb performance as the rueful heroine, Blanche DuBois, whose misery Mr. Williams is tenderly recording, in one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting in the history of theatre. Perfectly blended in a limpid performance, it is near impossible to tell where Ms. Hough begins to give form and warmth to the mood Mr. Williams has created.
Stella Kowalski (Jessica Kochu), her younger sister, is married to a rough-and-ready mechanic who both inhabit a dreary two room shanty in a squalid neighborhood. And one spring morning, Blanche turns up at the Kowalski hovel. Blanche is a rather strange girl, but at first there is nothing visibly wrong with her except a slight hysteria, which she tries to fight down with frequent surreptitious drinks of whiskey. But soon Blanche has delusions of grandeur, talks like an intellectual snob, buoys herself up with gaudy dreams, spends most of her time primping, flirts with 17-year old paperboys (James Peloquin), and lives only in shadows in an effort to flee reality.
She is fashionably appalled by the goings on in the house, such as the incredibly seedy, brawling poker game, but this is nothing compared with the dismay she experiences at her first sight of her sister’s husband, Stanley (Aaron Pyle). And, thanks to a peculiar combination of script and casting, Mr. Pyle's character emerges as almost wholly subhuman—illiterate, dirty, violent, and even somehow with a suggestion of an animal-like quality about him.
In addition to the personal disgust he inspires in her, Blanche is slowly forced to realize that her desperate pretending is no good with him. From the moment she comes in, he suspects the unbearable truth about her, and when she seems to be infecting her sister with her stylish ways, he drags it out into the light, with contemptuous brutality.
To him, she is an unforgivable liar. But it is soon apparent to the theatregoer that she is really one of the dispossessed — a pariah, whose experience has made her unfit for reality; and although Mr. Williams' attitude toward her is merciful, he does not spare her or the playgoer. For, the events of "…Streetcar" lead to a painful conclusion, which he does not try to avoid. And although Blanche cannot face the truth, as we will soon see, Mr. Williams does so willingly in one of the most imaginative and perceptive plays he has written.
The play is immediately perceived as a quietly woven study of intangibles with a performance that is a work of great beauty — magnificent, yet deeply disturbing, and almost faultless in the quality of its acting. Putting forth a clear context here is actually quite challenging to those who haven’t seen it. Most of us at one time or another have come upon some incident, some scene of senseless brutality or intolerable humiliation, that struck us inescapably as the last act in a life. And often we got home with quite a story worked out in our heads. Mr. Williams’ play might easily be the triumphant product of just such an experience.
That last scene may show a woman, at first resistant, but then fully resigned to the charm of her stewards as she is being led away from a crumbling house on a nightmarish street, unbeknownst to her fate. She may not be overly young, perhaps her middle thirties, but she is still quite attractive and has a certain sense of style — Old South, perchance, but still style — both in her manner and her dress. This, lamentably, is the palpable crux of the story at hand.
It would not be necessary to identify the two people with her as a doctor and an asylum nurse, for anyone can see that she is quite mad. We may remember also that the narrative is born of a day when psychiatric hospitals were run then much like a prison.
All I can say is that Frank Minano has directed a strong, intensely emotional play that, starting in low key, mounts slowly and inexorably to its shocking climax. Certainly one of the most impressive ones that has turned up this season, and in my estimation, a sounder and more mature work than even “The Glass Menagerie,” another of the author’s celebrated compliments to Southern womanhood.
Mr. Williams has placed “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the city of New Orleans, where it seems there is or was just such a car — life in this case being singularly obliging to art. The set represents a small apartment occupied by Stanley and his pregnant bride, Stella, a fine, highly libidinous girl, though the daughter of that most exhausted of all aristocracies, an old Southern family. It is possible that some scenic designer somewhere has contrived a more dire interior than the decaying atrocity that Mark Mackenzie has modified for the Kowalskis, but I doubt it.
Outside, a dilapidated old porch on a lower floor edges up to a group of other buildings and apartments; the furnishings are sparse and dreadful; there is no door between the two rooms, only a small curtain that separates the “guest bed;” the husband crudely insists on even leaving the bathroom door open; the desolate street outside is teeming with illicit grasps in the dark by rather shady looking people coming and going, and as the evening wears along, becoming gradually more oppressive.
It is something of a tribute to Mr. Williams’ talent that the story of Blanche’s past can seem even momentarily credible. The two girls were brought up in an old house, apparently the conventional “decaying mansion,” which he has chosen to call Belle Rêve, though they pronounce it “Belle Reeve.” Like Stella, Blanche married, but it was a brief and tragic escape, since the boy was secretly gay and shot himself after his seventeen-year-old bride had discovered him in a situation that could hardly be misinterpreted. She went back home, where she also watched the lingering deaths of three old women, and then, when the creditors had taken the house, went on to a town called Laurel, where she taught school and gradually, in a sick revulsion against death, took up with many men.
The match in the powder barrel ended with her seduction of an adolescent boy (which seemed to her the absolute antithesis of death, though some authorities might have diagnosed simple nymphomania) and with her expulsion from the town, where, in her brother-in-law’s sardonic wisdom, she was getting to be “better known than the President of the United States.”
By the time Blanche comes to her sister’s apartment, she has manufactured a gaudy and pathetic substitute past for herself, full of rich and handsome suitors, who respectfully admire her mind, but Kowalski tears that down ruthlessly — not with any special moral indignation but with a savage, obscene impetus that is infinitely more torturing.
"Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements." This is the opposite of the delicate and ethereal Blanche. Furthermore, the "center of his life has been pleasure with women." He takes pride in everything that is his. Thus part of the later conflict is that Blanche can never in any sense of the word be his. She lives in his house, eats his food, drinks his liquor and criticizes his life, but she is never his. Until finally he is alone with her. Coercing her while wife Stella is in the hospital, delivering, Blanche spirals down to new depths.
He also gives her secret away to good friend, Harold Mitchell (Michael Buczynski), the one man with has an innate kindness and gentleness who believes Blanche's Southern belle act and falls in love with her. He may have conceivably saved her, but then attempts to take her himself, casually and contemptuously. The end comes when her sister, who not only doesn’t believe her story of rape by her husband, but consents in collusion with Stanley to having her committed to an asylum. There is, I’m afraid, no words to convey the open-mouthed effect achieved in this last, submissive act of a mind desperately retreating into the beautiful, yet crazy world it has built for itself.
A couple of observations: It's difficult to visualize the girls’ ancestral home, other than something vaguely resembling a cross between the House of Usher and an old-fashioned Antebellum mansion, but Stella is written and played as a pretty, reasonably cultivated girl, coming from a good social class, and in no sense unbalanced. And her willing and cheerful descent into the lower depths of New Orleans seems rather incredible.
Stanley Kowalski is also portrayed as a man of enormous sexual attraction, so that the very sight of him causes Stella to see colored pinwheels. I will say, Mr. Pyle is truly an artist at work here and that fact is undisputed. As for Blanche — whatever the forces working against her may have been, her rapid degradation from whatever position she may have occupied in a top level of society to the bottom of the last level seems a good deal more picturesque than the norm. I’m sure it is conceivable that these transitions have occurred and still do in the South, but it is my suspicion that Mr. Williams has adjusted life in his novel quite drastically to fit his special theme.
My compliments to the cast, and, of course, Director Minano and crew, who deserve much approbation and praise. Ms. Hough gives a superb, steadily rising performance as Blanche; Mr. Pyle, as Kowalski, lays out a brutally effective characterization; Mr. Buczynski, as Blanche’s unhappy suitor, gets a unique, touching balance of dignity and pathos into what you might call one of those very difficult roles; and Ms. Kochu , as Stella, is sympathetic and restrained and very decorative indeed. Supporting characters include Michelle Reinhardt and Steve Siegel as Eunice and poker-buddy, Steve Hubell, the randy neighbors who quarrel and who own the apartment in which Stella and Stanley live. They represent the low-class, carnal life that Stella has chosen for herself. Like Stella, Eunice accepts her husband’s affections despite his physical abuse of her.
Pablo Gonzales (Hector Castaneda) is another neighbor and regular poker buddy. Pablo is Hispanic, and his friendship with Steve, Stanley, and Mitch emphasizes the culturally diverse nature of their neighborhood. Zee Manning is Woman #1 and makes several appearances, and in one late scene we see her scurrying across the stage in the night as she rifles through a prostitute’s lost handbag.
A Street Vendor is played by Jack Freedman; Candida Celaya is Woman #2 who eerily sells Mexican funeral decorations by issuing the plaintive call, “flores para los muertos” (flowers for the dead). Another strange man and woman of the night are played by George Waters and Gloria Anderson.
The show is Assistant Directed by Hope Kaufman, Props are by Jack Freedman, Costumes are derived from Theatre Company, Wigs inspired by Kirklyn Robinson, Lighting Design by Caleb Shiba, Sound Design by Gus Gonzalez, and Fight Coach is Patrick Brien. Production Stage Manager is Bobby Collins. Honorary Producer is Andrea John-Lueken.
IVRT’s "A Streetcar Named Desire" is a brilliant play overall, and the great playwright Tennessee Williams has not forgotten that human beings are the basic subject of art. Out of poetic imagination and ordinary compassion, he has spun a poignant and luminous story that not only grabs you by the heart but, if you’re not careful, sears a hole right through you.
*UPDATE 3/14/2020: In regard to rapidly developing events concerning COVID-19, and in the interest of public safety, IVRT has unamimously voted to cancel the remaining three performances of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as well as postpone the April/May production of “West Side Story.” Please refer to Inland Valley Repertory Theatre’s website for continuing updates on shows canceled or performances pending due to COVID-19. Thank you. www.ivrt.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credit by: DawnEllen Ferry