Director David Cromer is a certified genius. Even without his 2010 MacArthur “genius” grant, the mark of Cromer’s genius blazed in the excellence of his Our Town, which ran for 18 months in 2009-2010 at Manhattan’s Barrow Street Theatre and shook the dust from Thornton Wilder’s venerated masterpiece.
Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire never needed such ressurection. Some works are so well-written that even the most brain-dead productions show signs of life, but occasionally smart productions rise up that capture the poetry, heat, and tumidity of Williams’ New Orleans and the Kowalski ménage a trois.
So when a director of Cromer’s national acclaim comes to Williamstown Theatre Festival to re-create a well-received production of A Streetcar Named Desire (same set, lighting, sound designers and costumer as the acclaimed 2010 Writers’ Theater production), attention must be paid. The coupling of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s long history of producing Tennessee Williams’ plays and director David Cromer’s startling staging promised the kind of “colored lights going” that Stanley tempts Stella with near the play’s climax.
In an effort to create the same intimacy of Cromer’s Barrow Theatre Our Town and last year’s Writers’ Theater Streetcar, the audience at the Nikos Stage sits with the actors in their midst; with audience upstage and downstage of the raised acting area, the audience in this more spacious studio theater almost act as a background for the action in the Kowalskis’ Elysian Fields shotgun flat, the walls mere outlines. In and out of the Kowalskis’ skeleton apartment go Stanley (Sam Rockwell), Stella (Ana Reeder), Mitch (Daniel Stewart Sherman), Eunice (Jennifer Engstrom), Steve (Lou Sumrall), Pablo (Luis Vega), Matron (Emily Ryder Simoness), and Doctor (Kirby Ward). Only Blanche (Jessica Hecht) seems to live here. Naked, clear light bulbs with dangling pull chains are the only interior illumination in the sparsely furnished apartment.
Cromer’s genius is in the transparency of the stagecraft; it mirrors the sweaty intimacy of Williams’ French Quarter and theater’s symbiotic exhibitionism and voyeurism. While some touches, such as having Blanche, and the audience on both sides, watch Stanley dry-hump Stella after slapping her at the poker game, seem gratuitous, Cromer further penetrates this symbiosis by bringing the audience into Blanche’s mind with the subtle and startling staging of the Alan Grey scenes only in memory (at 16 Blanche married “a boy” with “something different . . . a nervousness, a softness and tenderness” about him, who commits suicide).
But the genius is dulled by a subsequent Alan Grey scene, in which the naked Alan reclines in Stanley’s bed with a naked newspaper collector crouching at the foot; Blanche’s confession is of “walking into an empty room . . . which wasn’t empty but had the boy that I married and an older man who had been his friend for many years” and of telling Alan “you disgust me” before he ran out to stick a “revolver into his mouth.” Would Williams’ staging of an older man and a younger boy be less shocking and truthful than Cromer’s youthful display? When in doubt, stick to the text.
And while the staging is intimate and the performances blunt and pedestrian, at its gut A Streetcar Named Desire needs a Stanley who justifies the text: a character who thoughout the play is called a “idiot,” “animal thing,” “pig,” and “a different species” by his wife Stella—Blanche’s descriptions are kind of Stanley—should have some menace in his motion. While Sam Rockwell shows that he’s been working out with his frequent disrobings, his clothed scenes diminish him, and when he slapped Stella, I feared for him. He plays many of his scenes with Stella or Blanche on his tiptoes, he’s like a bantam cock with a collection of tics and gesticulations.
Blanche’s line about having “intimacies with strangers” is usually an apt description of theater in general; here it would be more accurate as “intimacies with the strange.” And at three hours and 18 minutes, it’s an indulged strange that underscores that genius sometimes forgets to take his casting along with his stagecraft.