Sometimes the most compelling theater happens when a text we thought we knew inside and out is presented in a way that illuminates new layers and creates a deeper understanding. The current production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Boston Court Performing Arts Center is a fresh take on a play that has been well-known for over 70 years, adding a modern vibe and drawing fascinating lines of distinction between the characters that mostly add to the story.
Written by Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. It tells the story of Blanche DuBois (Jaimi Paige), an aging southern belle who arrives in New Orleans to stay with her younger, married sister, Stella (Maya Lynne Robinson) and her husband, Stanley (Desean Kevin Terry) after losing her family plantation, Belle Reve, to financial troubles. Blanche enters their humble life like a cyclone—she’s loud and attention-seeking, she drinks too much, and she is extremely vain and preoccupied with what she sees as her fading beauty, obsessed with only being seen in the most flattering lighting. She tells shaky lies about the circumstances, both financial and personal, that led to her arrival, which Stanley immediately clocks. He suspects she is hiding something and resents her presence in his home. Blanche, on the other hand, compares Stanley to an ape and finds him “common,” frequently insinuating that Stella is too good for him. But Stella is crazy about Stanley, finding ways to forgive him even when he is physically abusive. Stella becomes pregnant and Blanche develops a budding romance with Mitch (Luis Kelly-Duarte), the most refined of Stanley’s friends. But the events that occur during Blanche’s visit are a collision course of sorts, one her already fragile psyche is not fit to survive.
Directed by Michael Michetti, the Boston Court production opted to cast every character with the exception of Blanche, who is white, as a person of color. Additionally, the setting is modernized, also with the exception of Blanche. Stanley and Stella use iPhones, and a note on a flower vendor’s cart mentions remembering Hurricane Katrina. Live music sets the stage for the pre-show and provides transitions, giving the piece a contemporary, urban feel. While most of the cast is dressed in modern attire, Blanche presents as entirely of another world and time. She wears old-fashioned clothing, her belongings are in a trunk, not a suitcase—she is the only character styled in the fashion of the original time when the play was written, which makes her seem alien and, honestly, a bit pitiful. Of course, it would be impossible for this choice to move the story into the modern era to completely jive with Williams’s original text. When Blanche speaks of telegrams, it’s jarring, although one could argue it is a sign of her desperation to cling to her “good old days.”
The set (Efren Delgadillo, Jr.) is remarkably functional and symbolic at once. A bare bones, industrial-feeling representation of the two-family home Stella and Stanley occupy the bottom floor of, the dividers between the two rooms of the modest flat consist of plastic, transparent curtains, which serve as a metaphor for the goings-on in the story and also accentuate Blanche’s exhibitionism throughout, particularly when it comes to her volatile relationship with Stanley. The house during Blanche’s visit is a powder keg, and the lack of physical barriers only draws attention to how close things are to exploding and being exposed at any given moment.
The cast is sensational, led by Paige, who is giving what has to be an utterly draining performance. From the moment she arrives in the first scene, Blanche is frazzled and frantic, never slowing down for a moment, always pedaling both forwards and backwards at breakneck speed in a desperate attempt to regain some control of her life. The key to the character is the gradual unraveling and Paige portrays it masterfully, in spite of the lack of favors some key changes to the staging of pivotal moments do for the character arc. As Stanley, Kerry is tense and intimidating, a ticking time bomb primed to lash out at any moment. Robinson is quietly wonderful as Stella, playing the layers of the character’s confusion over her split loyalties to both Blanche and Stanley perfectly.
Up until the final scenes, I felt the racial dynamics did nothing but add to the story—it accentuates how much of an outsider Blanche is, how out of place she feels. Understandably, there was a concern about the optics of having Stanley, played by a black man, rape Blanche, a white woman, which is what occurs in Williams’s original text. To mitigate that, their sex is portrayed as consensual. Unfortunately, this means the final scene simply does not work. When Stella, moments from having her sister committed to a mental hospital, says that she just couldn’t believe Blanche’s story and also keep living with Stanley, it just does not make sense. It also hurts Blanche’s credibility—originally, the ending was heartbreaking. She is raped, not believed, and it is the last straw in her already declining mental health that leads to her being committed by her own family. Here, she has what feels like a heavily foreshadowed adulterous indiscretion, attempts to tell the truth about it, and is sent away. There is an interpretation here where she essentially shows up and rather unforgivably takes a far more active role in doing damage to her younger sister’s life, but it is equally problematic to argue that having been raped, which remains today an overused plot device in terms of providing emotional backstory for female characters, is a valid way to make a woman more “likable.”
It is worth noting that Paige does her best to mitigate this in performance—the moments prior to her sexual encounter with Stanley, in which she drunkenly dons an old dress and tiara and collapses into an old fantasy wherein a wealthy lover is coming to whisk her away, are expertly portrayed and make the degree to which Blanche’s mental health is crumbling quite clear. But ultimately, this version does the complicated character no favors. The ending aside, this is an inspired production that somehow makes the three hour running time fly by, and will make even the most devoted fans of the piece reconsider moments and dynamics they have always thought they understood.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through April 1st at the Boston Court in Pasadena. The running time is 3 hours, including one intermission. Currently, all remaining performances are sold out, but to stay informed of any future updates regarding ticketing or the production, click here or visit Boston Court on Twitter.