KPBS AIRDATE: February 7, 1996
They are two giants of the American theater — expansive, unforgettable characters. Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski — the fluttering, fading Southern belle and the bestial, carnal working-class Pole. Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” has been etched into the American psyche by the 1951 movie, with its electrifying performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh.
When he took on this enormous challenge, San Diego Repertory Theatre director Sam Woodhouse wanted to give the piece a little twist. Make it intercultural, like New Orleans was and is. Surround it with sound, a tangle of intercultural music. And charge it with a searing sexuality.
So he cast a white Stanley, Matte Osian, and two African Americans as the DuBois sisters — Obie Award winner Pamala Tyson as Blanche, and Sabrina LeBeauf (of “The Cosby Show”) as Stella. There is a long history of black and multicultural productions of “Streetcar,” and the concept works fine here, though I did expect some of the lines to resonate differently when a refined, educated black woman looks disparagingly on her lower class, redneck brother-in-law.
That really never happens. But, working strongly against prior portrayals, Tyson brings a ferocity to Blanche that is entirely consistent with 200 years of struggle and survival in black women. Her performance, though powerful, is lacking in the fragility that is so crucial to Blanche’s character. She is rapacious, yes, she can be brutal, manipulative, provocatively flirtatious, and Tyson plays these almost to the extreme. But she must also be artistic, delusional, and a little fragile. Her world, her life and her emotional stability are falling apart. Maybe she has contributed to Stanley’s ultimate destruction of her, but we should feel pity at the end, and with a tough-as-nails Blanche like this, it isn’t easy.
As for Stanley, Osian starts out frankly aping Brando. But once he settles in, his performance is as hard-hitting as Tyson’s. He underscores the intense sexuality, the ready anger, but completely omits the little-boy vulnerability, the soft-hearted devotion to Stella. We simply do not feel compassion for either of these characters, and without that, the play cannot really succeed.
But the production succeeds on other levels. Michael Roth’s sound design is superbly evocative, a delicious cacophony of live and taped blues, jazz, honky tonk and industrial rock. Mary Larson’s costumes are divine. And LeBeauf is an inspired Stella, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, deftly conveying both palpable sensuality and no-nonsense pragmatism. Another impressive balancing act is Bill Dunnam’s Mitch. As Stanley’s poker buddy and Blanche’s sometime suitor, Dunnam looks rough and beefy, but he masterfully shows a thoroughly credible sensitivity.
When the third act descends into melodrama and mayhem, we get the feeling that the director doesn’t trust the material. The play has plenty of muscularity and sensuality. But, as in the character of Blanche, there’s another, subtler side, a poetic delicacy that must be shown. In this production, a little nuance would go a long way.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.