By TJ Acena, PQ Monthly
Streetcar is one of those iconic plays of American theatre that infiltrates deep into our collective subconscious, we all know the scene where Stanley screams Stella’s name and Blanche’s iconic final line, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Most of this awareness comes from the 1951 film with Marlon Brando, which has become the most enduring production that springs to mind, along with the countless references and parodies in popular culture. You might never have seen Streetcar but think you have. I did. I realized right before the show started that I had never seen a production of it or the iconic movie. I had seen the Simpsons episode where Marge plays Blanche in a musical version of the show, which still holds up, but I was not familiar with what actually happens in the play. To use the expression of a friend, it’s essentially the ‘tragedy Olympics.’
Blanche (Deidrie Henry) arrives on the doorstep of the two-room house of her sister Stella (Kristen Adele) and her husband Stanley (Demetrius Grosse). Blanche has fallen on hard times, she took care of her parents as they died, she lost the family home, she’s been put on leave from her job as a teacher, and she still can’t get over the death of her husband 20 years ago. Her husband died from ‘secret gayness’, which of course he did, it’s a Tennessee Williams play. But she’s still haughty; she looks down on her Stella’s life and her choice in a husband. Fair enough, Stanley is a monster. He’s ill-mannered, abusive, and controlling. But they’re two sides of the same coin, they’re both consumed by their physical desires and become locked in a battle of wills with each other. Because this is a Tennessee Williams play desire is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person. Stella, the most sympathetic (I guess) character has a strange equanimity, but she’s a classic abused woman, rationalizing Stanley’s behavior and then brushing it aside because apparently he’s good in bed. I’m not sure why people describe Streetcar as ‘sensual’; it’s really just a show about erotically charged abuse.
It was unnerving how the crowd at Portland Center Stage reacted to the show. There was a lot of inappropriate laughter, by which I mean, the audience would laugh when Stella would make excuses for how Stanley abuses her because he just loves her so much and they have mind-blowing makeup sex. I don’t think that Adele is playing Stella for laughs, but the audience seemed to think she was. Given that the lead actors in the show are African American and the audience largely white, it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Anyway (spoiler alert for a 50+-year-old play and movie), Blanch starts coming apart at the seams, leading to a huge fight with Stanley, and then he rapes her. No one believes her because everyone has decided she is crazy, and they throw her in a mental institution. Because this is a Tennessee Williams play so no one can be happy.
All this is not to say that the play, and this production, don’t have enjoyable moments. Blanche is one of the most iconic tragic heroines in American theater; her affluent upbringing gives her dialogue a lyric beauty. She’s a woman on the edge, and Henry captures that frenetic energy of someone trying desperately to hold it together. The two-room house that consumes the stage is beautiful, with delicate see-through walls, reminiscent of the moss that grows on houses in New Orleans and highlighting the lack of privacy that the characters feel in the small space. Throughout the play the ensemble wander past the house, dozens of side characters, capturing the bustle of the French Quarter. It’s a fine production of an unrelenting show.
A Streetcar Named Desire is at Portland Center Stage through June 19.