The words “Named Desire” could be tagged onto the end of many Tennessee Williams plays. Why not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Named Desire or The Night of the Iguana Named Desire or Sweet Bird of Youth Named Desire? Unfulfilled desire is at the core of many of Williams’ best dramas, and characters are driven to misery if not madness by societal constraints that thwart their longings. Audiences have repeatedly embraced that storyline in Williams' work. Of course, the phrase belongs to A Streetcar Named Desire, where Blanche DuBois reaches the end of the line.
As director Maxwell Williams notes, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre’s production of Streetcar, running through March 31, takes place a few doors down from an apartment where Tennessee Williams lived and worked on the play. According to one account, the radio Stanley Kowalski throws out of the apartment in the drama is based on Williams’ typewriter being thrown out of that apartment on St. Peter Street.
[jump] The production at Le Petit Theatre wrestles with desire in Streetcar, but it ends up focusing more attention on the damage done.
Blanche DuBois (Beth Bartley) gets off a streetcar at Elysian Fields in search of the apartment of her sister Stella (Elizabeth McCoy) and husband Stanley (Curtis Billings). She gasps at the modesty of their home, but she’s moving in nonetheless. Blanche explains that she’s lost the family’s home in Mississippi, which bothers Stanley who realizes that he and his wife may have lost out on a piece of the estate. He’s also irked by Blanche’s affectations and the suggestion he’s unworthy of her pedigree. Stanley and Stella’s relationship has rough spots, especially due to Stanley’s rough and impulsive nature. As she tries to welcome and support Blanche, Stella finds herself in conflict with Stanley.
During a poker game in their kitchen, Stanley’s coworker Mitch (Paul Whitty) notices Blanche, and she entertains his interest. They go on dates and he buys a paper lantern for the lightbulb in the room where she stays. As they get to know each other, more about her life in Mississippi and her reason for leaving comes into the light.
The challenge of producing A Streetcar Named Desire is living in the shadow of Elia Kazan’s excellent film version starring Marlon Brando (Stanley), Vivien Leigh (Blanche) and Karl Malden (Mitch). Brando defined the role of Stanley.
Billings is a very capable actor and does a credible Stanley. He unleashes Stanley’s drunken anger during the poker game and is calmly menacing in his confrontations with Blanche. Stanley's relationship with Stella, however, is not as heated as it needs to be. McCoy looks too young to be Stella, but more importantly, she doesn’t sound compelling in the role. Crucial lines in which Stella tells Blanche that she finds Stanley’s forcefulness attractive were devoid of emotion. The production needs Stanley and Stella’s relationship to feel romantically charged, but here the underlying desire seems muted.
Bartley overplays Blanche’s affectations in the opening scene, but she is more compelling in the long scenes in which Blanche explains how her life unraveled in Mississippi. She becomes convincingly distraught if not sympathetic.
Whitty is excellent as Mitch. He’s hilarious when he confesses that he sweats too much and talks about his weight while trying to woo Blanche. He balances his anger about Blanche’s deceptions and his own disappointment.
Also solid are Zeb Hollins III and Troi Bechet as the boisterous upstairs neighbors, a couple with their own relationship ruffled by excessive drinking and carousing.
Ultimately, Streetcar is a troubling play, with Blanche’s unmasking and desperation and what Stella accepts in her relationship with Stanley. In this production, Maxwell Williams is unflinching about showing the harm. There’s no mistaking the violence when Stanley lashes out at Stella while drunk. He punches her in the face. In Blanche’s unravelling, the emphasis seems to be less on the desire that drove her and more on the humiliating end.
Le Petit’s version capably tells the story, and it’s hard to avert one’s eyes from Blanche’s sordid confessions. But the heart of the play is about characters pursuing with desires despite the consequences. Here, the production boarded Streetcar, but it doesn't always feel like the one named Desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire
March 22-25, 29-31
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (and 7:30 p.m. March 31)
Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, 616 St. Peter St., (504) 522-2081