When a great play like Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” gets a major revival with an ideal star like Audra McDonald, but the result is nevertheless a blur, you might be tempted to fault the director, in this case Robert O’Hara.
But don’t blame O’Hara so fast. As a stager of revivals, he is probably perfect: both a bomb-throwing activist and a strict constructionist. His production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” for the Williamstown Theater Festival last summer was faithful to the text yet, with just a few theatrical gestures, managed to graffiti over Hansberry’s slight optimism with an awful truth for our times. My colleague Ben Brantley aptly wrote that O’Hara burned “a hole right through” the 60-year-old play.
So I was more than eager to see what O’Hara would do at Williamstown this summer with “Streetcar,” a play so overripe with opportunities for rethinking that it almost seemed like low-hanging fruit. Since its debut on Broadway in 1947, it has graduated from American classic to cultural touchstone, many of its lines even better known (thanks in part to the 1951 movie) than the story that gave them birth.
Yet that story — of the “apelike” Stanley Kowalski and his “delicate” sister-in-law, Blanche DuBois — was problematic enough to make the first major production after the #MeToo movement a rich opportunity. Its atmosphere of perfumed longing for a past that included Black servants working on white people’s crumbling plantations made it singularly vulnerable, too.
That O’Hara’s Williamstown production was to star McDonald, our leading vocal tragedienne — in a part that, though spoken, seems like one long, ascendant aria — made this “Streetcar” a must-see event of the summer.
But of course it could not be seen, not then and not now.
After the pandemic forced the cancellation of its live season, Williamstown took the novel and in many ways noble route of reconfiguring most of its planned offerings as, essentially, radio dramas, produced with Audible Theater, the audiobook and podcast division of Amazon. “Streetcar,” the first out of the gate, was released on Thursday; three other titles will follow this month, three more in the new year.
Most of those upcoming plays being new works, they may not suffer as much as “Streetcar” does from the unasked-for translation to a medium in which it is literally impossible for a director to show us anything. And it turns out that Williams’s pungent language, full of poetic touches for Blanche and brutal ones for Stanley (Ariel Shafir, replacing the better-suited Bobby Cannavale), needs more showing than prosaic plays do, not less. Without faces and bodies to anchor them, and despite McDonald’s willingness to go anywhere emotionally, the lines too often float away or, in Stanley’s case, sink with a thud.
What remains isn’t so much bad as flat. Even with sophisticated engineering, audio has a difficult time detailing subtle emotional contours: Everything seems to be happening everywhere all at once. That problem is exacerbated by a podcast limitation O’Hara discovered during rehearsals: “Silence doesn’t help you,” he recently told my colleague Alexis Soloski. “Most times it sounds like someone missed the line or there’s a been a mistake.”
Skipping over those aurally unhelpful empty spaces makes for a swift production; it clocks in at 2 hours and 30 minutes, with the play’s three acts combined into one uninterrupted sequence. But haste also eliminates many of the inflection points in the characters’ development as they hustle from high point to low. Carnality, so central to the story — “The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation,” Blanche laments — gets lost in the shuffle.
That’s particularly injurious to our understanding of Stella (Carla Gugino): the fulcrum keeping Stanley and Blanche, her husband and sister, in tenuous balance. Her own swings of affection are almost impossible to register without some of that uncomfortable silence to frame them. And why in any case should we be comfortable about her returning to Stanley after each of his violent outbursts? Williams wants us to struggle with that contradiction.
As O’Hara has demonstrated in staging his own work — and in his Tony Award-nominated direction of Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play” — he usually relishes discomfort and contradiction. But for most of this “Streetcar,” he seems surprisingly hands-off, following Williams’s elaborate instructions about music and sound (rendered for this production by Lindsay Jones) a bit too obviously. If someone is eating, we’re sure to hear the slurp.
Only in the climactic scene between Stanley and Blanche, when Stella is at the hospital about to give birth, do things begin to get usefully wild. As Blanche succumbs to panic — and then to Stanley’s sexual violence — O’Hara amps up the expressionism inherent in Williams’s script and lets loose with a hooting, cackling, grunting soundscape of terrifying nightmare noise.
This characterization of Stanley as a jungle animal, and Stella as his prey, struck me as a neat reversal of the racist trope usually aimed at Black men, turning it instead into a comment on white men’s violence against women in general and, because we know McDonald is Black, against Black women in particular. To the extent that the playwright’s obvious sympathy for Blanche can sometimes drive “Streetcar” dangerously close to antebellum nostalgia — the DuBois plantation was, after all, called Belle Reve, or “Beautiful Dream” in French — O’Hara’s choice rebalances the picture and subtly detoxifies the narrative.
It’s that kind of theatrical activism I expected to hear more of, and that I hope O’Hara gets to explore more fully in a live production with McDonald. She has all the elements of a great Blanche in place, just not the place itself.
Onstage, she and O’Hara might also get closer to the molten core of the drama, which isn’t just about the tragedy of the modern always supplanting the antique, the dynamic overcoming the delicate. It’s also about not letting regret for those facts blind you to their necessity. Blanche, however the world has harmed her, has harmed plenty of others. Plantations weren’t pretty; they were sites of violence. If O’Hara can steer “Streetcar” further in that direction, it’ll really be something to see.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Available on Audible; audible.com.
The post Review: An Audio ‘Streetcar,’ Not Yet Reaching Its Destination appeared first on New York Times.