Words, Words, Words

April 9, 2001

I went to Arena Stage's production of A Streetcar Named Desire without preconceptions; about all I knew about the play was that it ends with Marlon Brando yelling "Stellla!!!!" And this production didn't end that way, actually, so the only line I recognized was "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

It was an impressive play, the first Tennessee Williams play I've really liked, and I watched a video of the Marlon Brando movie tonight for comparison. Both were good, but I like the play better. Arena Stage recruited a Hungarian director who's unfamiliar with the American South, and it paid off magnificiently. For one thing, the stark barren stage, a wallless grey warehouse structure representing the Kowalski apartment, has a symbolic force that the movie's realistic sets lack. The characters can't escape each other; they're trapped together.

Also, I liked the play's Stanley Kowalksi better. On stage he's a bald beefy guy, crude and without Brando's movie star dignity. When he overhears Blanche describing him as a beast and an ape, he dances around the stage like a monkey. Brando has a charisma that suggests Stella is drawn to him despite his vulgarity; on stage it's obvious that she's drawn to him because of it. (The actresses playing Blanche and Stella are less movie-star pretty than in the movie, which also works well.)

The ending at Arena Stage is both better and worse than the movie. On screen it seems that Blanche really is losing her sanity. On stage, she seems not mad so much as brittle. She's not well: she's been traumatized beyond her ability to function: but the only reason she's being sent to the madhouse is because Stella can't accept the truth of what has happened. Blanche's imprisonment is a way of repressing her story. Unfortunately the direction is clumsy here, with such symbolic elements as Stella dressing her in a straightjacket, and it just doesn't come together.

I recommend this production to anyone in the DC area, and the movie to anyone who isn't.

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