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'A Streetcar Named Desire' vibrates with the power of sexuality

Tennessee Williams' play depicts classless prejudice about sex and women

Published June 2005

By Lucy Komisar


A Streetcar Named Desire
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Edward Halle

Roundabout Theatre Company
Studio 54
254 W. 54 St

There's nothing dated about Tennesse Williams's riveting 1947 play, "A Streetcar Named Desire," which shows the power of sexuality to be both vitilizing and destructive. Two of his characters are winners and two, plus an unseen third, are losers. There's also a feminist component – of women utterly dependent on men for identity and support and bereft when they lose them.

Natasha Richardson and Amy Ryan
Natasha Richardson and Amy Ryan
Photos by Joan Marcus
Williams tells the story of Blanche DuBois, "genteel" public school teacher in rural Laurel, Miss., whose life has collapsed after the death of her husband and the loss of the family estate. She comes to New Orleans for a prolonged visit with her sister Stella, married to the working-class Pole, Stanley Kowalski. In their cramped apartment, Blanche and Stanley are bound to clash.

Edward Hall's production for the Roundabout Theatre Company is powerful, but he presents the story only half-right. The sisters, Stella (Amy Ryan) and Blanche (Natasha Richardson) are sizzling in their sexuality. Ryan seems ready to pounce. But the men, Stanley (John C. Reilly) and his co-worker Mitch (Chris Bauer), seem to prefer beer drinking and cards to sex, whatever they might say. They radiate nothing; they appear to want women to scratch an itch. A climactic sexual scene between Stanley and Blanche is thrown away as Stanley's dramatic remarks are delivered with all the excitement of "pass the salt."

Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly
Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly
The manipulative Richardson – blonde svelte, slight shabby – gives Blanche a victim's voice and at the same time oozes snobbishness. It takes a while before we learn that she is a victim of the South's prejudices that punish expressions of sexuality and penalize women if they go beyond what's allowed. (Blanche's late husband, the other sexual loser, was also a casualty.) These are prejudices that Stanley and Mitch share, something on which the "genteel" and the working classes agreed.

In some ways, the men's lack of sexual spark emphasizes that they see women a filling a set role as much as meeting urgent desires.

The vivid set by Robert Brill is a stylized brick and sleazy New Orleans apartment with rotating fans, and old wood raffia chair. A curtain separates bedroom and kitchen and a wrought-iron balcony marks the apartment upstairs. The rains, thunder, lights and fans appear a metaphor for Mother Earth, who might be expressing anger at the betrayal and foolishness of her children.

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