A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway 62 years ago, the exact halfway point in history between your reading this sentence and the Statue of Liberty arriving in New York. And it was with the play’s premiere that the torch was passed to a new female icon, the symbol of a very different era. In Blanche DuBois—Streetcar’s central character and almost certainly Tennessee Williams’ central creation—the optimism of the first American age has soured, and the longing for freedom has proved to be as effectual as a moth flapping against a window. Blanche, moth-like though she is, spends the play trying to flee the light, and her quest epitomizes travel in the modern age, in which the impossible distances to be traversed are no longer from continent to continent but from person to person.
As Blanche descends into frailty and fantasy, the demands of the part escalate, and the final act is a responsibility harrowing enough to make even an exceptionally strong actor uneasy. Director Calvin MacLean’s wonderful production is lucky indeed to boast local favorite and homecoming queen Dale Dickey in the lead role. She ploughs an increasingly ruthless furrow through the heart of the play, demonstrating a startling range and a first-class sensibility. Like many great actors, Dickey is actually not very impressive in her early scenes. This, however, is all part of the plan. By forgoing instant fireworks and instead building assiduously, her selflessness pays off as we witness a deterioration as credible as it is tragic, and during her later monologues one barely dares take a breath for fear of destroying the perfection of mood.
However much the theater department is paying set designer Chris Pickart, it’s simply not enough. Once again he furnishes an intricate yet somehow fantastically careless masterpiece, playing his normal games with space and perspective within the duality of street and home. The tone of New Orleans is further enhanced by a lovely score from Knoxville Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman.
It’s Matthew Ventura as Stanley Kowalski who perhaps has the toughest job of the night in having to equal—and indeed occasionally dominate—Dickey’s Blanche. And that’s not the only thing he must match. We know it’s pointless and unfair to picture the panther-like Marlon Brando howling up at his wife from the 1951 film adaptation, but it’s impossible to wholly shake off what is surely one of the five best-known images in cinema. Ventura gives a pretty good account of the part, making the intelligent decision to allow his manful struggling for the stage work with his interpretation rather than against it. Thus we are given a complex, tormented Stanley who agonizes over his masculinity instead of comfortably inhabiting it.
There’s a moment towards the end of the play when, ruing the sad catalog of failures and disappointments that has been her life, Blanche predicts she will die from… well, from what? Some 90 percent of writers would give us the banality of “a broken heart.” Those in the top 10 percent should rise to malaria, say, or a fall on ice. With Tennessee Williams, we are privileged to learn she expects to die from “eating an unwashed grape.” It’s in touches like these that Williams proves his reputation as a playwright of great stature is wholly deserved; he is master of both structure and insight, the large and small so rarely found together in a single writer. In fact, for him the structure becomes the insight; in Streetcar we witness how, at “the only end of age,” what is at first merely the incompatibility of fragility and happiness gives way to the incompatibility of sensation and happiness. The play is as impossibly moving as ever it was.