You can sit back and appreciate Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire as a bluesy, boozy 1940s love song to New Orleans if you want. And no one will blame you if that’s all you want to do with this extravagant parade of ludicrous plot points—southern belles losing the plantation and disappearing into gin joints, men smacking their women around and then making love to them in silk pajamas (that’s men wearing the pajamas, not women), and hatchet-faced medics arriving at the door bearing straitjackets. Or you can try to see it as an allegory about the gorgeous fading twilight of the corrupt and seductive South, as serious-minded theatergoers used to do.
But today it seems a fresh and supple script because of the fervent point that Williams liked to make about women: in many of his plays, certainly this one, women end up being undone by their sexuality, unless they manage to stifle or channel it. Williams was probably speaking silently for gay men as well. (And even not so silently. As many times as I’ve seen the play, I had forgotten that buried in an otherwise unnecessary revelation toward the end there is the parallel story of the even earlier tragic takedown of young Blanche DuBois’s homosexual husband.)
The Purple Rose production of Streetcar is sublime. Michelle Mountain, a powerfully sensuous actress who wears 1940s wardrobe like a second skin, was born to play Blanche DuBois. But who knew the rest of the cast would turn in such strong and shapely performances? Matthew David, blessed with Neanderthal carnality, is a natural for Stanley Kowalski. Charlyn Swarthout’s Stella is wiser and more alert than you’ve ever seen her before, tilting the dynamics of the uneasy threesome into a more modern emotional landscape.
You have to wait for the third act to get to the really good stuff. There are moments when the first two acts don’t completely click. Maybe it’s Michigan in winter, but this production doesn’t always conjure up the sweltering tropical loucheness of the New Orleans tenement where Blanche goes for her final act of passive self-destruction. The musical flourishes and the street-scene set pieces sometimes carry a whiff of academic exercise. Occasionally, even Michelle Mountain seems to be taking it a little too easy, falling into comical, lovable ditziness. But by the third act, everyone is good and warmed up. Stops are pulled out. You’ll go home happy.
A Streetcar Named Desire continues its run, Wednesday through Sunday, through March 21.