STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
by Tennessee Williams
Norman Rothstein Theatre (950 W. 41st Ave.)
$25-$28 + s/c
604-257-0366 or www.festivalboxoffice.com
Chemainus Theatre on Vancouver Island got such a positive response
when they staged Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece late last
summer that they decided to remount it in Vancouver this winter.
The Jewish Community Centre’s Norman Rothstein Theatre—a
nice proscenium space, theatrically under-utililized—provides
the venue. This unique arrangement turns out to be a pretty good
deal for everyone. Streetcar may well be the best play ever written
by an American, and Jeremy Tow’s elegant production certainly
reminds us why.
Streetcar is iconic largely for two reasons. First, Brando’s
Stanley Kowalski established the standard not only for all subsequent
Stanleys but, really, for naturalistic North American male performance
generally. Second, Blanche DuBois is possibly the greatest role
in the American repertoire. The battle between the two characters,
their balance of sympathies and antipathies provides the central
axis of the play. Mediating between them are Stella—wife
and sister—and Mitch, friend and suitor. Williams’ wonderful
prose-poetry and the atmosphere and characters of his working
class New Orleans provide a vivid backdrop, but the play lives
or dies with its four central characters.
This Streetcar belongs, unequivocally, to Blanche. Gina Chiarelli,
an under-appreciated actor until her recent career-making star
turn in the locally shot film See
Grace Fly, plays Blanche in
a familiar vein. Vocally, she sings and swoops and twitters rather
than speaks, in a way that has become conventional in the playing
of this character. The choice seems right. After all, life for
Blanche is a performance. She is playing the woman she would
like people to think she is. The real is too harsh and painful. “I
don’t tell truth,” she admits to Mitch, finally. “I
tell what ought to be truth.” Chiarelli, who bears a passing
resemblance to Meryl Streep, manages, like Streep, to embody
the character’s eccentricities rather than just act them.
Her Blanche’s nerves really do seem shot whenever she jumps
at a loud noise. Physically, she moves through the world with
her hands out in front of her as though she were clearing away
thick spider webs. She’s trapped, like some oversized hummingbird.
Blanche’s vulnerability and the inevitability of her fate
bring her as near to true tragedy as anyone in the modern theatre.
Chiarelli’s moving performance does justice to this exquisite
Lucia Frangione’s earthy Stella beautifully complements
Chiarelli’s airy Blanche. Even her voice is pitched below
her sister’s so their dialogues suggest the familial harmony
underlying and conflicting with their new situations in life.
There’s real love between these sisters, and Frangione
makes us feel Stella’s pain when she has to choose between
Stanley and Blanche. Her reconciliations with Stanley are genuinely
steamy. For Williams, the Life Force in the play resides in their
sexual connection. Ultimately, it’s no contest—Blanche
can never really compete. Her one possible chance is Mitch, often
played as stolid and thick, if good-hearted. Craig March is the
sweetest, cutest Mitch I’ve yet seen, and it works beautifully.
He’s such an attractive guy that, when he learns the “truth” about
Blanche, his pain and hers and ours is that much more powerful.
The wild card in this pack is Craig Erickson’s Stanley,
in some ways the most original performance in the show. Though
well built, Erickson is physically slighter and looks younger
than a lot of Stanleys. Utterly unlike Brando, he plays the character
as a Southern cracker, a redneck boy with bad posture and a voice
that might still be changing. Although he doesn’t overwhelm
Blanche physically—he’s hardly the menacing “ape” she
describes—his threats seem real enough. He is definitely
scary. He reminded me of the young men in those pictures of screaming
Deep South locals during the 1950s and early ‘60s, the
kind you could imagine murdering civil rights workers or bombing
a Black church. Even with his vicious streak and without the
command Stanley usually has, Erickson manages to make Stella’s
repeated choice of him understandable, if no less horrifying.
The other six actors do fine work as well on Carole Klemm’s
perhaps slightly too attractive pink-tinged set. Overall, a very
strong production of a truly great play.