Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Solid 'Streetcar' With A Resilient Blanche DuBois at Its Core

Cast of "Streetcar": Wood Harris, Nicole Ari Parker, Blair Underwood, and Daphne Rubin-Vega

Blanche DuBois is evolving.

Or maybe the way we view her is evolving.

This is what I found myself thinking while watching the compelling new production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterwork, A Streetcar Named Desire, now in previews at the Broadhurst Theatre.

Streetcar, under the deft direction of Emily Mann, features a multiracial cast of actors who are well on their way to making this American classic their own.  

This is more than “color blind” or “gimmick” casting; Williams himself envisioned a multiracial production, and one was in the works as early as 1958. It certainly makes sense for a play that takes place in that most culturally diverse of cities, New Orleans. 

Ms. Mann has chosen her players well, down to the smallest roles, including a welcome return to the stage for Carmen de Lavallade, the ageless dancer/actress who, as it so happens, is the daughter of Creole parents from New Orleans. Just watch her strut her stuff as part of the jazz funeral procession that opens the second act! 

Going against the tide of packing a play with sure-fire ticket selling big names (the current star-studded production of The Best Man comes to mind), this Streetcar brings us an ensemble of solid but generally lesser-known actors, mostly identified with television and film work. 

Blair Underwood--who perhaps comes closest to providing a name recognition factor—oozes earthy charm, sexual frisson, and violent rage in equal measure as the brutish Stanley.  “Every man’s a king—and I’m the King around here!” he snarls at his wife Stella, and he means it, even during those moments when he shows a dram of remorse for his abusive behavior.  He may seem at first to be a toothless braggadocio, but best beware; cross him at your peril.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, as the battered Stella, gives us a woman who is determined to live with the choices she has made and to fit herself into her husband’s rough-and-tumble world, a far cry from the genteel upbringing she and her sister Blanche knew when growing up on what was left of the family’s planation, Belle Reve.

If Belle Reve is the DuBois sisters’ Tara, Blanche DuBois is the one who most resembles Scarlett O’Hara.  Not the bubble-headed “fiddle-dee-dee” Scarlett, but the one who has learned how to fend for herself when those she has relied upon to take care of her have failed to do so, the Scarlett who declares, “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

There are, of course, many ways to play Blanche. She is one of the most richly imagined and complex characters in the history of American theater, the role of a lifetime for many an actress.  It was only a couple of years ago that Cate Blanchett headed up a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that theater critic Ben Brantley of The New York Times called “heart-stopping.” 

So, what a gutsy move it was to pin this iconic role on Nicole Ari Parker, an actress with little theatrical experience who is probably best known as a fashion model and for her role in the Showtime television series, “Soul Food,” dating back eight years now.

Gutsy and smart, as it turns out. Because Ms. Parker has sunk her teeth into the role, and has come up with a Blanche who has evolved considerably from the image of a wounded butterfly, passive and half-lost in illusions and dreams. 

Instead, she gives us a strong and resilient woman who has managed to survive a lifetime of blows by taking matters into her own hands. It may be true that she wants magic, as she famously declares, but look at the entire speech:  “I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” 

This Blanche knows full well what she is doing, and that the magic she craves doesn’t happen of its own accord.  When, for example, she covers a bare lightbulb with a paper lantern, she says, ”Oh look, we have created enchantment.” 

Despite her desire for a kinder, gentler world, Ms. Parker’s Blanche never for a moment forgets or brushes off the ugliness she has had to endure. 

Here she is explaining to a demanding and suspicious Stanley how it is she has come to lose Belle Reve:  “There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications…”

And here she is freely admitting to Mitch, her erstwhile beau (well played by Wood Harris with a mixture of naiveté and disdain) of her life after she lost Belle Reve:  “I stayed at a hotel called the Tarantula Arms. Yes, a big spider. That's where I brought my victims. Yes, I've had many meetings with strangers.”

She doesn’t even balk at telling the saddest tale of all, an act of cruelty she committed when she was young and dewy-eyed, which led to devastating consequences for which she will never ever forgive herself.  

I have to tell you, there were audible gasps from the audience more than once, and not just at the brutal act that occurs late in the play.  Yet it is Ms. Parker's portrait of a woman who endures that has the ability to resonate with audiences. 

Even after being horribly violated and summarily removed into psychiatric lock-up, there is every reason to imagine Blanche will return.  For it is not only her uncanny ability to rely on "the kindness of strangers" that will rescue her, but her unshakable faith that--to quote dear Scarlett--"Tomorrow is another day!"

This Streetcar may not be heart-stopping, but it is honest and powerful, and, unlike so many recent revivals of Tennessee Williams' plays,  it genuinely respects the playwright's exquisite use of language and imagery.   

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