Stanley (Matt Hawkins) has a talk over dinner wtih Stella (Stacy Stoltz) and Blanche (Natasha Lowe) in David Cromer’s new production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Director Cromer shines a naked light bulb on the American classic.
The show: A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by David Cromer.
THEATRE Tanaka: So, what was your take on last night’s show?
Wehunt: My overwhelming reaction was hunger.
Tanaka: It was long. And I did hear your husband’s tummy growling at one point.
Wehunt: Wait, that wasn’t the streetcar named Desire? No, you’re right. It was Nate’s stomach.
Tanaka: Haha. My thought in general was that David Cromer’s unvarnished realism thing basically stripped the lyricism out of the play, leaving us with a rather depressing domestic drama. That said, I think there’s much to recommend.
Wehunt: OK, you have a much more fully formed thought than I. I hadn’t seen the play or the movie in years, so I had forgotten a lot of the finer, and even greater, plot points, but I think I was expecting something—not a gimmick, but something unusual, some hallmark—from Cromer. Something subtle, but something that felt like it put a contemporary stamp on the play. So I kept waiting for that to happen and, at the same time, wondering if it already had, since I didn’t remember the play well. I left sort of surprised that I didn’t have more thoughts about it. But for a three-hour play, I wasn’t bored.
Tanaka: I know you didn’t see Cromer’s Our Town, but, if you had, you even moreso would be waiting for something unexpected to happen at some point. I won’t give it away here since I know you mentioned that you hope to see Our Town when Cromer’s production comes back to Chicago, but the thing about that show is that it is a stark version of that hoary chestnut, suddenly and dramatically and heartbreakingly brought to vivid immediacy by a brilliant coup de theatre. So. Naturally, one would come with big expectations to this show.
Wehunt: Right—I think I had read enough about it to expect . . . something. And this, to me, felt like a beautiful staging, but there was no reveal or revelation. It’s interesting, though, that you mentioned realism. I was really drawn in by Stella, who seemed the most real to me—and it made me want to see more of the actor Stacy Stoltz, since the last thing I saw her in was the Hypocrites’ hypercrazypants Frankenstein—but Stanley and Blanche. Realistic was not the word that came to mind.
Tanaka: I liked Stoltz in the role; I thought she nicely finessed the girl-from-up-the-hill come down to earth aspect of the character’s back story. What did you think of Blanche?
Wehunt: Well, OK. So, I think the last time I saw the play was as a very young adult. Maybe 21ish. And I remember not really understanding who these characters were. Not really processing that Stanley was a beast, but also smart and intuitive, and that he could read Blanche like a book. And not understanding that Blanche was conniving but wounded and at the same time optimistic—all of these emotions, I think, were beyond me and my very limited, Polly-annaish experience (not that I’m a hardened woman now). So, in some ways, I was seeing this play for the first time—and I felt like I understood the characters so much better, so on that level, I’d say the actors who played Blanche and Stanley really worked for me.
Tanaka: At the very beginning of the show, I was a little startled at how normal Blanche looked—a regular, respectable lady in a fine outfit. And, it was interesting to me that Cromer doesn’t have Blanche unwind all that much over the course of the play. I mean, you never see her really go stark-raving bananas, or even take her hair out of that tight bun. That seemed right to me. Blanche is nuts, but not so far gone that she ever loses control of her dignity. Which makes Stella’s decision to send her away much more difficult and much sadder.
Wehunt: I agree: She was keeping such a tight grip on her own version of reality and her own revision of her life story. I thought that was superbly drawn.
Tanaka: Wait—back up a sec. Are you saying that you thought Stanley and Blanche, as opposed to Stella, were stylized portrayals?
Wehunt: Yes, but not by nature of the acting, just the characters themselves: the huge personalities who are meant to drive the bus off the road versus the passenger. Stella/Stacy is smaller, more contained, but I just couldn’t stop watching her reactions to everything; they felt so believable—I think because I feel like she’s our avatar onstage, the one in between these two forces of nature.
Tanaka: Did you love the set? I did, particularly how real it seemed in terms of the actual space. You could believe that the space represented on stage was exactly the dimensions of their dumpy little apartment.
Wehunt: Yes. Yes. Yes. My very first reaction was how much better I liked this version of being up close and personal with the play than in something like a promenade staging. We were in their lives, we were in their business. I could see the pattern on the chenille bedspread and hear the whir of the fan and read the Jax beer label. We were in there, in that crazy house, with them.
Tanaka: Someone I chatted with during one of the two intermissions made a funny comment to me. She was seated at the end of the stage where the bed is situated. She called it "Fornication Corner." That made me laugh.
Wehunt: So true. And so glad I wasn’t in her seat. Hey, did you see Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid?
Tanaka: I did not.
Wehunt: The actor who played Mitch, Danny McCarthy, was in that play as well and (I think) had to leave that production, since it was extended twice, in order to join Streetcar. Which is just to say that Abigail’s Party was recently onstage and is relatively fresh in my memory. So, I was surprised to see him play the role of Mitch so similarly to that of Tony in AP. We’re talking VERY similar. The two guys have a lot in common, but Tony, from AP, is creep-susceptible, or at least has some creep in him; whereas Mitch, I think, is basically a sweetheart. Was just interesting to see such similar takes on two characters in two very different plays.
Tanaka: I must say that Danny McCarthy is a personal fave; his acting has real clarity and directness and I think that’s why he gets cast. I find what carries over from production to production with McCarthy is his body language—he has a very distinctive carriage and a both-feet-planted way of standing. I did like him in this Streetcar, although the role is kind of thankless, isn’t it? Mitch spends a lot of time listening to other characters talk. Overall, do you recommend this show?
Wehunt: For me, it goes beyond body language to the syncopated-verging-on-stutter line delivery, but I do like the deadpan. Overall: Yes—but especially if it’s been a long time since you’ve seen Streetcar. Just eat first. What about you?
Tanaka: I think so. Definitely eat a good hearty meal and plan for a drink afterward.
GO: Thru August 1. $40-$65. Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor, Glencoe; 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org.
MORE ABOUT DAVID CROMER AND A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
- The Chicago Tribune review by Chris Jones, 5/14/2010:
"Cromer, the breakout Chicago director who has been handed three Broadway shows inside two seasons, is inarguably now the definitive current interpreter of mid-century American poetic drama. And since the likes of William Inge and Williams floated up from a heartland that could no longer contain them, there’s something apt in Cromer himself replicating their journey from Chicago. [FOUR STARS OUT OF FOUR]"
- The Chicago Sun-Times, 5/14/2010: "David Cromer returns via ‘Streetcar,’" by Hedy Weiss.
- Chicago magazine, May 2010 issue: "Pair Play," by Catey Sullivan.
- Chicago magazine, February 2009 issue: "Talk of Our Town," by Mara Tapp.
Photography: Michael Brosilow