As opening-night audience reactions and the program notes by Hartford Stage’s new artistic director Michael Wilson made clear, Tennessee Williams’ 51-year-old “A Streetcar Named Desire” is not immune from the current Clinton contretemps. In the seventh scene of the play, which has launched Wilson’s first Hartford season, Stanley Kowalski forces his wife Stella to face the facts about her nymphomaniac sister Blanche with, among other revelations, the line, “She is as famous in Laurel as if she was the president of the United States, only she is not respected by any party!” The audience punctuated it with two enormous bursts of laughter. Fortunately, Wilson’s production and cast were sturdy enough to retain their equanimity, and the contemporary gloss on the line did not unduly disrupt the play.
In an entirely understandable form of insurance, Wilson has opted to remount a number of productions during his first HS season that he’s already had success with elsewhere. Such is the case with “Streetcar,” which, with Annalee Jefferies as his Blanche, he staged at the PlayMakers Repertory Co. in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1994 and at Houston’s Alley Theater in 1996.
(Coincidentally, Andre Previn’s opera of “Streetcar” is set for a San Francisco premiere Saturday.)
Whatever limitations it may have on the HS stage, it’s certainly packed with theatrical vigor and, particularly in the cases of Blanche and Stella, technically strong performances.
Indeed, Jefferies’ Blanche may be too strong for her own good. Physically, Jefferies’ blonde, deep-voiced Blanche is an overripe peach quite different from the comparatively ladylike delicacy of the Blanches of Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh. She also seems too self-aware and well-balanced, and thus her ultimate descent into insanity isn’t easy to accept.
Nevertheless the actress handles the difficult, wordy role with considerable aplomb. She isn’t afraid to mine its built-in comedy or revel in its oftenoperatic purple patches and is, without doubt, the production’s focal point.
Jefferies is amply aided by Alyssa Bresnahan’s solid, lusty Stella, who is also quite different from the role’s creator, Kim Hunter. The two actresses in the current production work splendidly together as loving sisters, one drowning in lies and delusions, the other only too willing to admit her love/lust for her animalistic husband.
Apart from an oft-bared beefcake chest, James Colby’s Stanley doesn’t have the necessary sexual charisma, despite a considerable amount of dressing, undressing and loveplay among the three central characters. Robert Clohessy is just fine as Blanche’s “beau,” Mitch, and Lisa Leguillou creates a fully rounded character as the Kowalskis’ landlady Eunice.
The rest of the cast is up to the demands of play and production.
Director Wilson has clearly studied the script intently and has responded to every request for sound effects, music, dramatic lighting, amplified and echoing voices, etc. — too much so in some cases, particularly toward the end of the play when the sky behind Jeff Cowie’s skeletal French Quarter setting turns blood red as Stanley rapes Blanche, or when the crowd of extras playing seedy French Quarter denizens performs in slow motion and stylized mime.
Nor have Wilson and Cowie quite come to terms with the half-in-the-round stage of the HS, so that some of the actual physical staging is clumsy (audience members on either side of the stage have an odd view of the production).
Wilson has added to the play a lengthy prologue that begins as the audience is being seated. The set is dressed to suggest a French Quarter bar in which a blues singer and a pianist are performing a lengthy cabaret act to just one customer. And Blanche fights her way through a horde of prostitutes, transvestites, sailors and so forth as she arrives at her sister’s two rented rooms, the set being re-dressed to suggest them as she does so.
Wilson has also altered the play’s ending slightly, the final lines being Stella’s wailing repeated cry of her sister’s name rather than that of poker-playing Steve’s “This game is seven-card stud.”
There’s nothing wrong with this slight cut, though Wilson hasn’t staged the play’s wrenching denouement as effectively as it should be. It’s cluttered, as is true of some of his production’s other scenes.
Nevertheless, it’s an intelligent, more than serviceable production of a legendary period piece, and a promising beginning of Wilson and Hartford Stage’s projected multiyear retrospective of the entire Williams canon.