There is much to admire of Gulfshore Playhouse’s very professional production of Tennessee Williams’s classic “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The physical aspects of the production are all excellent — the evocative set, the lighting, the period costumes, the sound, not to mention the way each of the actors physically fits his or her role.
Adam McNulty is a convincing, surprisingly intelligent, Stanley Kowalski. Gwen Ellis is a remarkable Stella, earthy and practical. She is torn between her passionate, messy love for Stanley and her caring for her sister Blanche. “Enabling” was not a term in common parlance in the 1940’s, but it applies to Stella’s part in the onstage relationships. Blanche would maintain that Stella enables Stanley’s uncouth behavior; actually Stella enables Blanche’s delusions. Miss Ellis captures all these apparent contradictions in a consistent characterization.
The center of the play is the faded belle Blanche DuBois. We need to have a love/hate relationship with Blanche: dislike of her self-indulgence must be tempered by sympathy for her loneliness and vulnerability. Blanche is from her first appearance barely holding it together, propping herself up with misguided ideas of graciousness and femininity. When the going gets even a little tough, she escapes to her booze, her headaches or her bath. But there is genuine charm and cleverness there as well, and Blanche has had hard knocks enough to elicit some pity.
Claire Brownell on the face of things does everything right. Her accent, it goes without saying, at Gulfshore, is perfect. Blanche’s artificial girlishness and manipulative flirtatiousness are captured. However, in the end, Miss Brownell is an too substantial to be a convincing butterfly. Her Blanche is a pain in the neck, a liar and certainly an impossible house guest. Williams’s Blanche is all those things. But she needs to be more.
At 65, the failings of “Streetcar” failings are becoming evident. Williams’s operatic language can be simply overblown. His imagery can be labored: the etiolated culture of the old South is represented by “Blanche”; Stanley and Stella’s neighborhood is called “Elysian Fields”; there is the eponymous streetcar. Blanche’s tragic story of the sensitive boy she married young, who blew his brains out when she discovered his homosexuality, comes over more melodramatic than shattering.
This being Tennessee Williams, the story is swimming in sex. Its rawness was startling in 1947. Today, when prime-time TV shows compete for new levels of explicit raunchiness, the once-shocking carnality of “Streetcar” seems a trifle quaint. The staging in one key moment does not help — the climactic scene of Blanche’s brutal ravishing by Stanley, which sends Blanche finally over the edge of madness, is not clearly identifiable as rape.
“Streetcar” is showing its age, but like Blanche it should still be able to cast a spell and make one believe, for a little while at least. Gulfshore Playhouse has done many extraordinary productions and will do many more. It is to be congratulated for the courage to attempt this play, even if it is not entirely successful.