Arts & Culture

A spin on 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ cast members Evan Brown, Ellie Kovara, Nora Doane and Shelby Lewis before a publicity still for the 1947 Broadway production.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ cast members Evan Brown, Ellie Kovara, Nora Doane and Shelby Lewis before a publicity still for the 1947 Broadway production. CAL POLY CAST PHOTO BY TIM DUGAN; BROADWAY CAST PHOTO BY EILEEN DARBY

The creative team at the Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department is always full of surprises — so what do they do with an iconic, much repeated and even satirized classic American drama like “A Streetcar Named Desire”?

For starters, as audience members enter the theater before the play begins, a woman is restrained in a large tub onstage as huge images of faucets and running water are projected onto a curtain above her. When her caretakers remove the restraining cover from the tub she is slapped and emerges, nude, then wrapped in a robe and led away.

This is the prologue to a production of the familiar Tennessee Williams play, suggesting that the scene is actually an epilogue—what may happen to the central character, Blanche Dubois, after the play ends.

Projected imagery continues before the action begins and between scenes in the play. It adds an artistic dimension and relates the production to film and social history that has evolved around “Streetcar” since its 1947 setting.

The projections are amorphous, sometimes abstract, with scenes of empty rooms and long halls suggesting confinement, and brief images of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, who starred in the film version, flashing by, as well as visions of other media moments, such as the apes in “2001,” and Homer Simpson and Elaine of “Seinfeld,” who had their TV moments with “Streetcar.”

This intermittent imagery, with sound and music, is an embellishment to the realistic set of the apartment of Stanley and Stella Kowalski in a seedy area of New Orleans. A backdrop of tall city buildings looms behind and above the apartment. Tim Dugan is scenic and lighting designer, and his team includes Max Brown, Sven Le, Jerry Gough, Chelsea Pugh, Kyle Usselton and Howard Gee.

In the New Orleans apartment, Stella, formerly a genteel girl living on a Southern plantation, and her rough Polish husband have settled into their own pattern of domestic, sometimes violent partnership, when Stella’s sister Blanche arrives, homeless and jobless. Blanche considers herself an unsullied Southern belle, a self-image that she has nurtured and projected in spite of a past that belies it.

The play is the story of the unraveling of Blanche as her imagined self is forced to face harsh reality. She considers herself the absolute opposite of the brutish Stanley, and their clashes escalate as Stanley uncovers her past.

One thing that is missing in this production is the element of sexual tension between the two that often builds in other versions of the play. Here, they just seem to hate each other.

Virginia Anderson directs the strong cast. Shelby Lewis plays Blanche in an intense performance. To call Blanche high-strung would be an understatement, as she goes from confused to deranged. Over the years the role has been played with acting styles varying from pathetic to manic, and this is a manic performance with few nuanced moments.

The role of Stanley, too, has been played in different ways, from totally brutish to misunderstood to being a basically nice guy. Evan Brown plays him as rude and physical, but not quite brutish. Although Stanley is sometimes played as a real villain, it works better to give him some redeeming quality other than great sex for Stella to stay with him and continue to sincerely profess to love him.

Ellie Kovara plays Stella as a self-disciplined woman, more stable than either her husband or her sister as she has learned to cope. Jack Adams is good as Mitch, Stanley’s naïve friend who woos Blanche before things fall apart.

Although Blanche appears foolish and irresponsible at first, sympathy builds for her as her life story is revealed and she begins to self-destruct. This production begins and ends with her fate, and the decision to send her to a mental institution seems harsh, pointed out as the nurse treats her badly at the beginning and the end of the play. The tub represents a method of “hydrotherapy” that was used at the time.

The theater program explains that the playwright based his characters on his own violent father and his unstable sister, who was forced by her parents to have a lobotomy.

We have come a long way in treating psychiatric problems, but the uniquely rich characterizations and believable depictions of dysfunctional families keep the plays of Tennessee Williams compelling, even as such details of them become dated.