I think it would be safe to say that most people’s first exposure to Tennessee William’s masterful play A Streetcar Named Desire comes from the classic 1951 Elia Kazan film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. With such seminal performances already in the cultural conscious (Marlon Brando shouting “Stellaaaaaaaaaa!” anyone?), it would be difficult to erase predisposed opinions when putting on a completely new production. Ashland’s very own Oregon Shakespeare Festival, however, has done just that – and much, much more.
The premise of William’s play is deceptively simple. The action centers around three characters: Blanche DuBois (Kate Mulligan), a fading southern belle who comes to live with her newlywed sister Stella (Nell Geisslinger) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (Danforth Comins) in the middle of a stifling hot New Orleans summer. Stella and Stanley live in a cramped street-level apartment, hardly room enough for two people, let alone three. This close proximity effectively amplifies the tensions between the characters: Stanley and Stella’s fierce sexual chemistry, Stella and Blanche’s strange sisterly relationship, as well as the dangerous hostility between Stanley and Blanche – perhaps the most compelling relationship of the entire piece.
With my only exposure through Streetcar being through the movie, I of course approached OSF’s production with more than a few assumptions. Nonetheless, within a few minutes my pre-conceived notions were blown out of the water. Unsurprisingly, the conservative censorship of the 1950s movie studios cut out some vital aspects of William’s play – may I stress the word “vital” – which, although I will not reveal, completely change the tone of the work and the characters’ motives. These “new” plot points were disturbing, but only made the performance more compelling than I ever thought possible.
OSF’s Streetcar is a stylish production, but refreshingly this does not take away from the actors’ performances. Mulligan is a revelation as Blanche, injecting her desperation and trauma straight into the audience’s core. It is a rare actress that can simultaneously make one resent and pity her, but Mulligan achieves just that. Geisslinger is, dare I say it, the perfect Stella, with just the right balance of melancholy, complexity, and sprightliness. Comins’ Stanley Kowalski took a little getting used to, mainly because I’ve had Brando on the brain for much too long. Comins doesn’t seem as threatening as he should be…at first. His Stanley is a monster that slowly grows in size when the audience’s back is turned, so to speak, and clutches you by the throat before it’s too late.
Streetcar is not for the faint of heart. But its messages and themes are more than applicable to the times, and I commend OSF for taking on a task many would easily pass over. It’s surely not one to be missed.
More information and tickets to OSF’s A Streetcar Named Desire can be found at www.osfashland.org. Theatre-goers aged 19-35, keep your eyes peeled for the 19-35 Program, in which tickets for select showings of plays can be had for just $25.