Long before the #MeToo movement, audiences were perplexed by Stella, the younger sister in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Yes, that Stella, memorialized in one of the most famous lines in theater history.) Why, a viewer might ask, would Stella put up with her domineering husband, Stanley, whose misogynistic impulses are magnified when he drinks? Stanley can be aggressive and volatile. He considers himself “king” of his household. He sometimes belittles Stella.
And, worst of all, he beats her.
Yet she stays with him. Why?
In the carefully crafted and emotionally potent new Fresno State production of “Streetcar,” which runs through Saturday, May 12, I found myself wrapped up in this question more than ever. Much of the reason, I realize, has to do with the times in which we’re living. Issues of sexual harassment and assault seem ubiquitous these days. Plot points that would have sailed smoothly by audiences in the 1960s, say, can feel jarring to contemporary viewers. “Streetcar” might be a fiercely period piece, steeped in the societal attitudes and expectations of the 1940s, but you can’t help but view it through a lens of today.
After viewing this perceptive production, I don’t have any grand insights as to why Stella does what she does — other than to muse that as much as we’d like to label the idea of a woman staying with an abusive husband as something archaic, it seems to happen today with startling regularity. But what I most enjoy about this “Streetcar” and Kathleen McKinley’s sensitive direction is the way its four leading actors bring a subtle contemporary sheen to the proceedings. Instead of big, scenery-chewing, over-the-top performances, we get interesting nuance and a measured approach to the material.
As Blanche DuBois, the talented Reshma Meister gives a heartfelt performance. Her Blanche is wary, brittle and screamingly insecure. Her Southern drawl is finely wrought. I particularly liked Meister’s eloquent delivery of Blanche’s most searing monologue late in the second act when she reveals more about her dead husband.
Such a daunting role is a challenge for someone so young, of course. What I missed from Meister’s portrayal was the sense of fierceness I expect from the character. Blanche is a bit of a mess, yes, and psychologically troubled, and her crumbling life isn’t always easy to watch, but she has more up her sleeve than just a steady stream of sarcasm and a “Woe is me” persona. She is a master manipulator. And a survivor. She is cunning, clever, and she’s a fighter — something that Stanley recognizes and is challenged by. I just didn’t feel enough of Blanche’s battle-scarred toughness, I guess you could say.
Jalen Stewart is an impressive Stanley. At one point, Blanche asks Stella what positive characteristics she could possibly see in her rough-hewn husband, and Stella replies: He has drive. That’s what I felt from Stewart’s performance. His Stanley isn’t so much about swagger — and I’ve seen several swaggering Stanleys — as an icy resolve. From his “Hey, Stella!” line — delivered in a fresh and affecting way — to his head-to-toe contempt for Blanche, Stewart forges a memorable performance. (His diction could be improved, however; he had a tendency to speed up and swallow some of his lines at the Sunday matinee performance I attended.)
Alyssa Benitez brings a freshness and vitality to Stella, but also a sense of resolve. And in one of the production’s standout performances, Jimmy Haynie is stellar as Mitch, the man on whom a desperate Blanche pins her hopes. Haynie’s range in the show — from self-effacing to bitter — feels real and raw.
In supporting roles, I was impressed with the “upstairs neighbors” (played by Lauren Folland and Andrew Trevino), who offer small, vivid moments that add texture to the production.
The design of the show feels just average. Jeff Hunter’s solid looking set looks well crafted, but it’s neither conceptual enough to add oomph to the production nor vivid enough to offer a bracing dose of realism. For an apartment that is described repeatedly in the script as being messy and rundown, at least in Blanche’s eyes, the space is tidy and sterile. With its stucco-looking walls and a back wall of precise, handsome wooden slats providing a view to the street beyond, it looks more like an upscale Japanese restaurant than a New Orleans dive.
Student lighting designer Erik Montierth gets some great experience; I like his efforts to capture the hazy New Orleans light, although some lighting transitions seem abrupt. Kristine Doiel’s period costumes have great attention to detail. I wish they could have exuded more of a distressed, “lived-in” feel.
What stands out to me, design-wise, is Regina Harris’ sound design, which is the one element that really steeps us in the character and flavor of New Orleans. Deftly mixing period music and street noise, Harris gives us a distinctive aural portrait. Combined with live music (a fine Quincy Maxwell as a street busker, giving us short, scene-changing excerpts on the trombone), the sound helps make the show.
As does McKinley’s direction. As I said earlier, the sexual politics of “Streetcar” stand out in this production. Sex is as essential a component of the show’s overall spirit as jazz — think of the countless master’s theses written about Williams’ sexuality, Blanche’s obsession with her looks and ownership of her body, the show’s suggested rape, Stella and Stanley’s powerful carnal relationship, etc. — and this production does a nice job of making all those steamy connections. More than that, however, it accomplishes it without making the play feel like an overwrought, histrionic museum piece.
The result is a passionate yet cerebral experience that might make you ask some tough questions. One of them is Stella’s motivations for staying with Stanley. Those questions aren’t just necessary. They’re vital.
“A Streetcar Named Desire,” 7:30 p.m. nightly through Saturday, May 12, Fresno State John Wright Theatre. Tickets are $17 general, $10 students.
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