A Streetcar Named Desire: A Review
—A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennesse Williams—
—As performed by The Florians 15th- 18th June 2022—
Plays like A Streetcar Named Desire leave a lot to live up to, forcing their players to both recognise and rise above the expectations each audience member- be they uninitiated or avid student- inevitably carries into the theatre with them.
Alison Og’s Blanche DuBois is the living embodiment of Belle Reve: a woman whose worth and dignity are gradually, then brutally, stripped away by the exploitations and desires of men. Og meticulously portrays Blanche as someone being crushed under the weight of her own narrative, with the pitch, pith and pace of her southern drawl captivating the audience from the moment she opens her mouth, catching them off-guard as she oscillates seamlessly between her off-hand child-like silliness, and her struggles to cope with the depravation of her and her sister’s circumstances. A role that invites histrionics, Og holds Blanche like a piece of broken glass in the palm of her hand, leaving the audience to look on with pity and despair at the cracks that grow and spread throughout her magnificent and heart-rending portrayal of a woman forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Stanley Kowalski’s exclamation of ‘Stella’ has become a moment of modern parody, of satire. A simple online search will reveal dozens of 'Stella' references in popular television shows and movies, even those aimed at children. Simon Lyall’s performance is a stark reminder that there is nothing funny, or redeemable, about this character. Lyall’s arrogant, swaggering, nasty Stanley leaves the audience deeply uncomfortable. At first the audience laugh at his showing off, his exaggerated reactions, with some prepared, perhaps, to forgive a flash of drunken temper masking, perhaps, a deep vulnerability but Lyall gives no quarter, and the audience is forced to recognise just how easy it can be to overlook or downplay the warning signs of abuse until it is too late, determined to sit in their seats and hope until all hope is gone, as complicit as the cast, all following the same scripts, refusing to believe what is happening. The power Lyall brings to the role is through his physicality, his Near Orleans accent and the tics and spasms of a man always waiting for an excuse to control, abuse, and destroy.
As Stanley, Lyall generates fear, disgust and revulsion anew in a well-known role. For those familiar with the play, he brings a discomfiting level of malice and depravity- for those seeing it for the first time, I can only imagine it to be something closer to horror.
And between the two, Rosalyn Paton makes her strong stage debut as Stella Kowalski, a woman caught between the inescapable desire she has for Stanley and the desperate need to support her sister. Paton starts the role with a child-like enthusiasm for Stanley and her sister that borders on naivety but as the play continues Paton expertly portrays the slow painful progress of disillusionment, culminating in her refusal to believe her sister’s account of what Stanley has done, not because she believes him incapable of it, but because she recognises only now the vulnerability of her own circumstances. The audience so fiercely want Paton’s Stella to be the hero, to fight back, to strike out and start afresh, but it is her sensitive, devastating portrayal of the intractability of her circumstances that leave the audience with a pervasive sense of what she has lost.
And on the outside of this turbulent inner circle, a subtle and understated Mitch, played by David Saunders. For much of the play Saunders allows Mitch to be the passive and affable best friend. The nervousness and gratitude he shows in response to Blanche’s attentions are palpable but Saunders does not allow his character to be a saviour in the rough, his gentleness underlined always by self-interest and the fear of being lonely. His casual disregard of Blanche, the insidious, almost indifferent way Saunders portrays Mitch’s attempt to get from her what he judges her so harshly for giving away, marks his cruelty as the one peculiar to gentle men: the righteous disregard of compassion in the face of his own desire. Saunders holds his place among the principles without ever overstepping the boundaries Williams has established for him, adding depth and nuance that, again, refuse the audience a comfortable appraisal of his character.
From the outset, director Jo Galloway skilfully keeps the audience on the back foot, with moments of tenderness and light-heartedness juxtaposed with those filled with dark hints and sinister intimations. Galloway makes many brave choices- leaving the passionate and violent scenes to run longer than is comfortable for the audience- because this is not a play written with their comfort in mind. The longer transitions between scenes provide some respite, allowing for moments of peace, of normalcy, and for a greater sense of the time that passes between the first and final acts.
The supporting cast truly live up to their name here: upholding, reinforcing, and perpetuating the intense, oppressive lives of Streetcar’s central characters. The challenge of playing Eunice- a mantle taken up by Jay MacGregor- is in the need to play someone who is playing someone else: someone bolshy and loving, pushy and passionate. Eunice is the only character who admonishes Stanley and gets away with it, but is also the one who openly admits to a sobbing Stella, that in truth they are all irreparably trapped in the lives they have chosen for themselves, a sentiment Macgregor delivers with a gentle and important balance of empathy and the need to endure. Steve and Pablo- played by Matthias Kremer (who also embodied no less than three other roles) and Tom Masterton- make up the quartet of poker players with solid performances that confidently stand alongside Lyall’s and Saunders portrayals of scrappy, squabbling companions, held together more by booze and bets than common feeling and friendship. Gerry Sutton’s dual roles- as the bumbling delivery man who gets flustered when kissed by Blanche at the beginning and the sombre kindly doctor who helps her again at the end- provide a haunting reminder as to how much has changed, and how far the characters have fallen since the play’s opening.
Alongside supporting roles played by Michelle Grover and Anne Bamborough as Mexican woman and woman, an evocative set and adept use of props, sound and lighting, Galloway’s production is a shining star in The Florian’s impressive constellation.
A modern audience wants a modern ending: for Blanche to fight back, for Stella to rally, for Eunice to pack them up and run away together. But they don't. And so this play, this performance, is one that leaves the audience feeling complicit, uncertain, and more than a little broken: a production that will continue to resonate with audiences long after its all too short run is complete.