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Take pride in American literary heritage and see “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Fri, Sep 12th, 2003
Posted in Features

There’s a line in Streetcar Named Desire where high school English teacher Blanch Dubois laments the fact that her students don’t care much about their American literary heritage. And that got me to thinking about how, with the recent surge in patriotism and celebration of all things American, we don’t hear renewed enthusiasm for American literature or other American arts.

When Lee Greenwood sings, “God Bless the U.S.A.”, is he thinking of Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway? What could be more American than Huck Finn? Or Nick Adams, Jay Gatsby, or Cather’s Nebraska pioneer families?

Two literary characters who found their way into American pop culture in the 1950’s are Blanche Dubois and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kawolski, the creations of playwright Tennessee Williams in his Pulitzer prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened September 5 at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro, under the direction of Core Artist Eric Lorentz Bunge.

These two characters became widely known through the 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. As Blanche Dubois, Vivien Leigh played a fallen, aging Southern woman who has spent her “better” years caring for dying relatives and watching the family fortune dwindle away. In a state of hidden desperation, she appears at the doorstep of her sister Stella who has long since abandoned the plantation for a working class life with her brutish husband, Stanley.

Stanley and Blanche become immediate enemies, each representing all that the other despises. Blanche represents the upper, educated class who Stanley perceives as critical of him and his kind. To Blanch, Stanley represents all that is unrefined and regrettable in human nature. They become trapped in a battle of loathing, but also in a strange, almost dangerous, fascination with each other.

Williams is best known for this play and The Glass Menagerie, both of which beautifully capture his tragic themes of vulnerability and misunderstanding.

As a playwright, Williams didn’t set out to make audiences laugh, and he didn’t offer classic heroes. His characters are often tragically misunderstood delicate creatures crushed by the uncaring world of machines and efficiency. In that sense, his plays serve as a warning as to what may happen if we fail to treat the most fragile among us tenderly

Since the stunning portrayals by Leigh and Brando are embedded in many American minds, I’m guessing that it must be at least slightly intimidating for actors today to take on those roles.

In the Commonweal’s production, Lisa Weaver stands out as Blanche, and can surely set her performance next to Jessica Lange’s in the 1990’s version, and even next to Vivien Leigh’s. Weaver seems to channel Miss Dubois with her birdlike movements and southern charm. She succeeds in making Blanche a character we can alternately pity and be annoyed by. Her pain and terror was so convincing in the final act that (big self-disclosure coming) I actually wept through it.

However, I didn’t weep because I found Knutson as Stanley to be truly menacing, but because Weaver’s Blanche convinced me that she believed she was in danger. At the preview, Knutson had not yet appeared to have found his “groove” as Stanley. It’s a difficult role, I would think, especially since, unfairly maybe, many will think of Marlon Brando’s Stanley. Stanley needs to be a huge presence on the stage, but in a subtle smoldering way – the way a lion poised in the corner of the room could spring at any unexpected moment. Knutson’s Stanley is prone to quick movements around the stage and is frequently just loud.

Sometimes action and volume do make emotions larger. But largeness can also come from restraint that trembles at the threshold and, for the audience, that can be so much more interesting and dramatic. Knutson has become a favorite performer with his knack for comedy, but he proved he can handle the serious drama as Torvald in last season’s A Doll House. Very likely he’ll continue to develop his “Stanley.”

Jill Underwood is strong as Stella, caught in between the two powers that be as Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife. In fact, as I finally dried my tears regarding Blanche in the final act, Underwood’s Stella, realizing she’s just betrayed her sister, calls out to her in such a heartbreaking voice that my old tear faucet started afresh.

Scott Dixon is also solid as Blanche’s potential savior, Mitch. Jeremy Felch makes his Commonweal debut in the duo roles of Pablo and the young collector. Luther College Semester-In-Residence students Lee Franson, Tom Vellishek, and Stefanie Dickens fill out the cast in the roles of Eunice Hubbell, Steve Hubbell, and the Mexican Woman/ Nurse. Core artist Hal Cropp takes the small but crucial role of the doctor.

To create the crowded Kowalski apartment in New Orleans’ French quarter during the late 1940’s, costume designer Janis Martin tried a new role as scenic designer for this play while David Hennessey did costume design. The results are wonderful – no less than what audiences have come to expect on the Commonweal stage.

Since I was familiar with the play, I came in full “tragedy mode” as an audience member. For that reason, I found it a bit unsettling that the preview audience laughed, sometimes guffawed, through much of the production. I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t believe the actors were necessarily playing to the laughs. It could have been almost nervous laughter – an audience bravely taking their comic relief wherever possible in this tragic material. It also occurred to me that southern accents and eccentric behavior plays like broad comedy to a typical Midwestern audience.

You can take pride in your own American literary heritage and make a patriotic statement by seeing A Streetcar Named Desire, showing through November 16 at the Commonweal Theatre.

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