There are plentiful ghosts in both the literal and imagined streets of New Orleans, from Brando and Leigh to the more recently drowned, displaced, and dispossessed. One would be hard pressed to imagine a patch of American ground more supernaturally charged with sound, sex, and disaster than the terrain Tennessee Williams's Streetcar traverses.
And the Guthrie's straight-ahead production of A Streetcar Named Desire does justice to its source, making the case for the play's continued idiosyncratic greatness, but only by a nose. Its audiences will find themselves rattled by its emotional violence, while viscerally unstirred on a couple of fronts.
Our scenario is familiar to anyone who attended a high school English class. The skittish fabulist Blanche (Gretchen Egolf) has arrived at the French Quarter home of her sister Stella (Stacia Rice) and brutish husband Stanley (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) in a state of distress. Having played out the financial and romantic string in her small town, Blanche proceeds to give things a desperate go in the big city, only to find herself done in by her horrid brother-in-law and societal norms that conspire to marginalize her to the point of ruin.
A Streetcar Named Desire
at the Guthrie Theater
through August 29
There's a hell of a lot more going on, of course, and Egolf is nothing short of a revelation. Lanky and screwy, her Blanche is prone to seesaw between glaring storms of disapproval and bursts of off-key coquettish charm. Egolf's performance is a hornet's nest of contradictions, uninhibited and free of self-consciousness—all the while embracing Blanche's conundrum of self-obsession and shattered vulnerability.
The same cannot be said of Chavira, whose work seems to wilt in the heat of Egolf's blaze. Chavira looks the part, and throws his bulk around from time to time with appropriate menace. But for a big guy, his presence seems to recede more often than not, and in his interactions with Egolf he falls back on hollow glowering and a lopsided smirk reminiscent of the expression late-period DeNiro has utilized in lieu of invention.
Rice's Stella is stuck trying to balance the two (admittedly the crux of the role), and applies sugar and steel to plug the leaks, but we get only a hint of the powder keg of Stanley's own inner struggle: the love-hate tidal pull of masculine passion, the creation and destruction that represents the stupid lug's ignoble quest to find his own answers in the face of Blanche's haughty disapproval (a stand-in, of course, for his insoluble feelings for Stella).
Brian Keane adds the right touch of cowardice and fleeting hope as Blanche's suitor Mitch, and the scene in which Blanche weaves a web of wonder for him represents Egolf's best stretch of the night (she works Williams like a musical score, rising and falling as her character buys and sells her own bullshit in the same breath). By the wretched, painful ending, we're as done in as our lying, dreaming weirdo female protagonist.
But if we feel Blanche's doomed yearning, we're left with a Stanley that fails to rise above an enigma. Mr. Kowalski is indeed over his head, but not necessarily in the way that Williams intended. We get a cold shiver from these ghosts, but not quite the sense that they have come fully to life.