Down in ol’ New Orleans
A Streetcar Named Desire
Twenty-one years after his death, Tennessee Williams is back. He knocked the literary establishment dead in the late 1940s with plays like A Streetcar Named Desire. He came out way before it was socially acceptable, and he lived long enough to see his best work go somewhat out of fashion. Now his plays are cool again, and that’s good news.
Didn’t the Williams revival start with the San Francisco Opera’s production of André Previn’s adaptation of Streetcar in 1998? Last month, a high- profile revival of Williams’ original 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning script played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Other productions are sprouting elsewhere—including one at UC Davis.
Jamaican director Yvonne Brewster (a university artist-in-residence visiting from London) is at the helm. A taut, brooding undergrad named Ammar Mahmood plays Stanley Kowalski—the Polish Louisianan with the famously short fuse. The playwright might have approved. Streetcar is set in old New Orleans, which Williams described in the play as “a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races.”
The script still packs a punch. It’s nearly three hours of steamy drama dealing with sexual attraction and simmering anger. It contrasts rude honesty and polite deceptions, marriage and sisterly bonds, realism and pretension, and drunkenness and hangovers. Everything is crammed into tight quarters, filled with cigarette smoke and booze.
Heather Dara Williams gives us a nerved-up Blanche DuBois—big gestures, nervous twitches and smiling lies—the Southern princess on the skids. Dyan McBride is the better-adjusted, long-suffering Stella. Her performance is very credible, as Stella’s loyalties are torn between her decaying sister, Blanche, and her cruel husband, Stanley. Mahmood’s physical presence as Stanley is strong, more so than his voice. Somehow, I wanted a little more audio gravitas. David Beatty does well as Mitch, who woos Blanche but backs off after he learns about her past.
Brewster conjures a decadent New Orleans, with drunks passing out on the streets and neighbors making out upstairs (in dark profile, behind scrims). The elaborate set by John Iacovelli, a faculty member who’s done major productions around the country, is a dark, decaying masterpiece. It’s one of the two best sets I’ve seen in the region this year (the other being Foothill Theatre Company’s red-rock Utah set for When It Goes Haywire).