As a critic, I must evaluate the new audio production of A Streetcar Named Desire on its own merits. Yet, I can’t help also considering what might have been.
Back in February, Williamstown Theatre Festival announced that Robert O’Hara would direct a fresh staging of Tennessee Williams’ enduring classic, featuring Audra McDonald as Blanche DuBois and Carla Gugino as Stella Kowalski. As a fervent fan of all three, I was immediately elated. And having seen O’Hara’s galvanizing take on A Raisin in the Sun at Williamstown the previous summer, I marveled at the possibilities he could bring to a play so familiar it’s often hidebound by audience expectations.
The coronavirus had other plans, of course. In April, Williamstown simultaneously canceled its in-person season and announced a partnership with Audible to convert the scheduled programming to streaming events. Eight months later, we are finally beginning to reap the fruits of that decision, with four digital plays set to be released throughout December. An additional three selections, including a world-premiere musical, are forthcoming in 2021.
It makes sense to start with Streetcar, a recognizable title with a heavy-hitting cast, rather than some of the newer works yet to come. I expect many with no connection to Williamstown might seek it out, buoyed by memories of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s classic film adaptation, or perhaps thinking back to their high-school English classes. They’ll find an interpretation that is occasionally gripping, with a handful of strong performances and a conclusion that still devastates no matter how many times you’ve heard the tragic story of Belle Reve and Elysian Fields.
Audible’s world-class production values also deliver a satisfying aural experience, with a superb soundscape by Lindsay Jones that evokes the sweaty, sexy, almost feral pace of life in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Jazz and zydeco fill the space between words, and an almost-constant soundtrack of street noise situates the listener squarely within the Kowalski flat, the title streetcar’s foreboding rumble always discernable in the distance. Jones also uses sound to delineate character in surprisingly clever ways. I was struck in the first scene by how Stella’s footsteps, light and airy as she skips off to watch her husband bowl, are quickly replaced by Blanche’s lumbering gait, suggesting a woman already defeated by her first entrance.
After nearly a year of Zoom theater, with unmade beds and anachronistic décor ever-present in the background, there is something enjoyable about being able to close your eyes and let the world of the play unfold through your headphones. It helps, too, that the assembled cast seems comfortable working in this medium. Had it not been disclosed, I never would have known the tracks were recorded entirely remotely—according to a recent New York Times article, McDonald laid her vocals down while crouching in her closet. Such is art in 2020.
Despite the polish and professionalism, to say nothing of the grit, this Streetcar doesn’t deliver what I’d hoped it would. It is a solid but traditional reading of a well-known play, whereas O’Hara’s recent Raisin totally upended expectations. It would not be out of place as a learning tool in an AP English classroom. But it’s also not the kind of reimagination that raises the hair on your neck long after the last word has been spoken.
I could occasionally hear the suggestion of what O’Hara might have wanted to explore more deeply. His Streetcar is more sexually charged than most, pulling something at the play’s periphery to downstage center. When Stella takes Stanley back into her bed after their legendary row in the poker scene, she does so with raw, animalistic lust; Stanley’s later line about pulling her off the refined columns of Belle Reve and into the world of colored lights makes sense. Similarly, Blanche’s interaction with the Young Collector is played not as flirtation but as naked seduction. (You half-expect McDonald’s Blanche to mutter “Come up and see me sometime” as her conquest scuttles away.) The idea of sex as the lingua franca that draws these characters into desperate, destructive situations in an intriguing one—and supported by the text—but it hasn’t been fully realized here.
Neither, I’m sorry to say, has McDonald’s performance. She’s often compelling, and like O’Hara, she seems to have definite ideas about Blanche that aren’t completely worked through. Her Blanche appears more dependent on alcohol than others, a fact that might have been evident in a live performances, where movements and stolen drinks could couple with slurry speech to present a portrait of a woman in the grips of addiction.
She also retains Blanche’s natural hauteur throughout the proceedings, even in her most frantic moments. The downside of this is a lack of vulnerability in some of the character’s more fragile moments, as when she recounts the narrative of her young, gay husband’s suicide to Mitch. McDonald’s performance of this monologue, as well as Blanche’s concluding speech, lacks the tension you’d expect from a person driven to the edge of collapse, who might or might not pull herself together—depending, of course, on the ever-important kindness of strangers.
The strongest performances throughout are the most traditional—Gugino’s sympathetic Stella, or Sullivan Jones’ kindly but conflicted Mitch—or the ones most willing to be unapologetically weird (Joe Goldammer and Carmen M. Herlihy are an especially quirky Steve and Eunice Hubbell). Ariel Shafir, replacing the originally announced Bobby Cannavale, lacks the magnetism needed to explain why everyone is so drawn to Stanley, even when it’s to their detriment.
In the end, I celebrate the ingenuity of Williamstown for pulling together this creative project, and I look forward to what else they have in store over the weeks and months to come. But this Streetcar hasn’t reached its destination.