Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” is written neither in verse nor prose, of course. But any director approaching this great American play must reconcile its conflicting impulses, represented by those literary modes: “Streetcar” is both a searing, naturalistic drama about sex and class and power, and a lyric poem defending with luminous eloquence the noble ideals of tenderness and beauty against a world that brutalizes them.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Garry Hynes, the Irish director best known for her Tony-winning work on Martin McDonagh’s lurid comedy-drama “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” comes down firmly on the side of the prosaic in her new staging at the Kennedy Center. The production, marking indie film star Patricia Clarkson’s return to theater after a six-year hiatus, kicks off the center’s summerlong festival of major Williams plays in rock-solid, dramatically assured fashion. It’s continually engrossing, handsomely produced and capably acted on all fronts — with particularly impressive contributions from Amy Ryan, as an immensely touchingly Stella, and Adam Rothenberg as a wily, boyish Stanley Kowalski.
But the production doesn’t take you on the wrenching emotional ride that the finest “Streetcars” do. It’s possible to watch the slow unraveling of Clarkson’s Blanche DuBois with an analytical eye, to hear her famous arias as carefully cued set-pieces rather than the spontaneous, heart-stopping outpourings of a desperate soul crying out, for all of us, against the world’s cruelty.
Clarkson, a native of New Orleans, where the play is set, is a skilled, smart and sensitive actress, with the fine bones and porcelain skin of a bona fide Southern belle. But there is a knowing, flinty quality to her performance that belies the fragility that should be the character’s core; for far too long, this Blanche appears to have a surprising amount in common with the sweet-talking, steely-eyed women Clarkson has played so persuasively onscreen. Until the last stages of her dissolution, you get the feeling that, for all her protestations of helplessness, Blanche has a few unused tricks up her sleeve.
Beginning with the opening scene, John Lee Beatty’s elaborately naturalistic set underscores this calculating aspect of her character, as well as Hynes’ tendency to treat the play exclusively as a taut tale of domestic conflict. The two rooms of Stanley and Stella’s apartment take up the entire stage space; Beatty’s colorfully detailed set, with a full ceiling, seems by itself to restrict the play’s dimensions to the literal, to enclose its meanings.
And the high ceilings, chic exposed-brick walls and yawning windows are likely to strike most 21st century urban dwellers as pretty swell, making Blanche’s gasps of horror at the cramped squalor of the apartment seem disingenuous, even mildly malicious. (Beatty’s design may be an impeccably correct representation of a N’awlins lower-middle-class dwelling of the period, but abandonment of technical realism might better serve the dramatic purposes of the play.)
Clarkson’s voice is a colorful instrument. She uses its wide dynamic range, from a light nasal hum to a smoky contralto drawl, to accentuate the nimbleness of Blanche’s wits as she begins her delicate dance of enchantment with Stanley, mixing casual doses of contempt with her natural inclination to flatter and flirt in the presence of men. In this respect she has stolen a march on Natasha Richardson, who recently told the New York Times she intends to underscore the “wittier” aspects of Blanche when she steps onto her own “Streetcar” next year.
But if we can take pleasure in the vinegary flavoring Clarkson brings to the dialogue, we might also say, to quote Mr. Kowalski, So what? Blanche’s wit is merely a weapon she uses to shield the remnants of her heart from the battering violations of the world, and if the character’s profound sensitivity doesn’t glimmer continually through the defenses she has constructed to keep it alive, the play’s power to affect us is vitiated. We must feel that, beneath the soiled surfaces that Stanley so sneeringly derides, Blanche truly possesses the purity of feeling she claims.
That embattled purity registers dimly here. Clarkson’s and Hynes’ approach to the character is epitomized by the key scene in which she extracts a kiss from a young man collecting for the paper. The moment can be either poignant or prurient, an illustration of Blanche’s innocence or her corruption (ideally, of course, it should partake of both). Hynes and Clarkson opt too strongly for the latter here, with line readings that stop just short of mouth-watering. The audience, naturally, is inclined to smirk; indeed, we’re on to Blanche before Stanley is in this production, so that her late-coming protestations of her allegiance to the ideals of kindness and beauty don’t have the fierce force of a manifesto that grips our heart — they’re just more words. The play becomes a seamy drama about the stripping away of a hypocrite’s pretensions more than a tragedy of sensitivity despoiled.
There are, however, moments of real poignance to be found in unexpected places here. Rothenberg’s Stanley, while lacking the smoldering sexuality that famously marked Marlon Brando’s perf, never comes across as a mere brute, but as a canny, cagy fellow defending his turf — and a love that, for all the crudeness with which it is expressed, registers as a forceful rebuke to Blanche’s insistence on the supremacy of genteel modes of conduct. That maddening hurdle for any actor undertaking this role — Stanley’s anguished cries of “Stella!” — is cleared with ease here: It’s one of the production’s most touching moments, as Stanley prowls the apartment like a mad animal.
It’s exciting to see a relative unknown step up so confidently and capably to a role that has tripped up any number of more established performers. (London’s last two Stanleys — Iain Glen and Toby Stephens — come to mind.)
Ryan’s Stella is simply perfection. Emotionally frayed almost to the breaking point by her desire to protect her beloved sister, whose desperate plight she understands all too clearly, Ryan’s Stella is a continually anxious, suffering presence in the play, her eyes often downcast to avoid the supplications of her sister or the sexual enticements of her husband. Stella’s last cries of remorse are as painful to hear as any of Blanche’s anguished arias. An undersung New York stage actress who always turns in meticulous work, Ryan outdoes herself here.
There’s no doubt that equal dedication has gone into Clarkson’s perf, but Blanche is an infinitely richer, deeper, more delicate role — probably the most challenging an actress will ever face. It’s no reflection on Clarkson’s talent to say that, for all the care and craft of her performance — to say nothing of her natural glamour — the delicate bird that is Blanche’s yearning, suffering soul has ultimately eluded her grasp.