The Kindness of Strangers, Southern Style
A sort of sultry lethargy settles over the Loeb Experimental Theater as Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire drawls its way into Cambridge. The final installment of the Harvard Radcliffe Summer Theater season, Streetcar provides a weighty if unfulfilling attempt at closure.
Under the veteran direction of Naeemah White-Peppers, postwar New Orleans lurches into being, subtle jazz languishing on the breeze before fading into silence. The simple home of Stanley (Ari Appel '03) and Stella (Christine Nichols '01) Kowalski, rendered in a pastiche of gritty realism and abstract whimsy by designer Pete Wilson '99, becomes a battle ground where Stanley and Blanche DuBois (Sara Newbold '00), Stella's indigent sister, square off in a frantic struggle for survival.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate for this production that Williams's characters describe one another in such vivid detail. While Newbold's Blanche is certainly striking as a misplaced flower already begun to wilt, she struggles to maintain her own illusions, making it difficult for the audience to feel for her misfortunes. Likewise, Appel's Stanley rises to moments of animal force, but these pass as quickly as they come; Appel flits between an appealing, carnal alternative to the decaying Southern gentry of the Belle Reve and a brutish cartoon of an abusive husband. Of the three main characters, the most appealing is Nichols's Stella.
Seductive and forgiving, she is a woman who rejects her past and chooses to create a future for herself and her new family. Aroused by Stanley's sexual potency and reveling in the simpler pleasures of life, Stella defends her choices to her sister's accusations, saying, "I'm not in anything I want to get out of." Wedged between Blanche's hysterics and Stanley's violence, Nichols provides a quiet, steady compassion that serves as a foundation for the fizzling explosions going off around her.
The design of the show, while appropriate and functional, offers little additional insight into the characters or their actions. A notable exception arises in Blanche's lapses into reminiscence, where the music she danced to long ago clashes with the background honky-tonk, creating a cacophony to echo the disturbance within her mind. Though the relative visual simplicity of the piece is important to the text, shifting boundaries between realism and magic--pantomimed doors and cloth walls give way to warped floorboards and battered furniture--is at once complimentary and disconcerting. Stella, Blanche and Stanley are crowded together into a tiny space where privacy does not exist and escape is impossible.
The only significant flaw in this production rests, unfortunately, at its heart; the relationship triangle at the center of the play generally lacks passion. This general malaise is made more obvious in the moments when one of the ensemble truly shines. Perhaps the performers will find their characters in time to salvage them, and the Streetcar will roll on. If not, this production is a respectable introduction to Williams text for those unfamiliar with the play, and a chance for others to revisit a memory or two. In either case, HRSTs Streetcar provides an unknowing example of the difference between the truth and, as Blanche puts it, what ought to be the truth.
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