So iconic is the scream “Stella! STELLAAAA!!!” from Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire” that the highlight of each annual meeting of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is the “Stanley and Stella Kowalski Shouting Contest.”
Affectionately known as the “Stell-off,” the competition reenacts the torrid scene early in the play in which working class Stanley – the brutish tormentor of his visiting Southern belle sister-in-law Blanche DuBois – remorsefully shouts for his pregnant wife Stella to return after she was slapped during his drunken tantrum.
Judges use the raw, primal performance turned in by Marlon Brando during the show’s Broadway premiere and, more notably, in the classic 1951 film adaptation as their benchmark.
Entire productions of the play can be similarly evaluated, for Stanley’s scream serves as an early indicator of an actor’s insight into this key character’s mindset, defines the tenor of his confrontations with the intrusive and deeply troubled Blanche, and gives shape to his relationship with the highly compromised Stella. It could be argued that the scream is also a viable barometer of a director’s approach to the emotional truths that lie between it and other outbursts.
In the current Mamaí staging of “Streetcar,” Jason Kaufman’s scream is a comparatively understated affair that is more inebriated anger than agony and more hurt pride than passion. It seems inspired by Stanley’s want and desire rather than his need and desperation. And so does this production under Mitchell Fields’ direction
This is not to suggest that this rendition of “Streetcar” is less moving or less successful than more impassioned productions of the past. Nor does it imply that Stanley's "deliberate cruelty" is any more forgivable. But where other productions are intense, this one is intensive.
As such it is the accumulated effect of the small, carefully honed moments crafted by Williams, exhaustively discovered by Fields, and interpreted by his exceptional cast that make this production such an interesting and entertaining piece of work.
And the first moment comes with the entrance of Blanche, magnificently played by Bernadette Clemens, who immediately displays her cultivated delicacy and contrived personality. A fading Mississippi belle done in by her circumstances and appetites, Blanche seeks refuge at the Kowalski home where, scene by scene and moment by moment, Clemens gives her character’s emotional state greater translucence and allows her tragic arc to painstakingly unravel.
All the while, Rachel Lee Kolis radiates warmth as younger sister Stella and maintains her inner-strength and sense of self as Stanley’s wife, particularly during the worst of times and when answering Stanley’s iconic call. The heartbreak on her face during the final scene of the play, upon Blanche’s departure, is one of many powerful images audiences will take home with them.
Still brutish but more motivated by his battered pride than predatory instincts or impressive pectorals, Kaufman’s Stanley is almost a sympathetic soul. And while the aforementioned scream would not qualify him for the finals at the Literary Festival, it is such a game-changer in this production that it alters the dynamics in the sex scene between Blanche and Stanley. Williams once described this scene as "the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." Here, it is less clear who is sensitive and who is savage, which is intriguing.
Because of this production’s reliance on the accumulated effect of the small moments, greater importance is placed on the secondary characters and the moments they create.
One occurs immediately after Blanche’s entrance, when she meets Eunice, the apartment’s landlady and Stella’s upstairs neighbor and friend. Christine McBurney’s wonderful portrayal provides a perfect and necessary counterpoint to Clemens’ Blanche, which helps define the world in which Blanche is about to enter.
Throughout the play, Blanche has her eyes set on sad sack Mitch, who is Stanley’s shy, lonely poker pal and former army buddy. When Mitch comes to learn that Blanche has deceived him, his response is understandably aggressive but John Busser wisely chooses to make his character’s anger short-lived, painful and immediately regrettable. Busser turns in a lovely, poignant performance.
All of the action of “Streetcar” takes place in a cramped, first floor two-bedroom apartment in the low-income section of the French Quarter of New Orleans. Designed with attention to detail by Don McBride, the intimate set is ideally claustrophobic and perfectly suited to this immensely intimate play. Rob Peck and Cyrus O. Taylor’s lighting and sound design, respectively, complement this production but do little to add to it.
Which is fine. What Fields and his cast bring to the stage is enough to attract our attention and hold it from start to finish.
WHAT: “A Streetcar Named Desire”
WHERE: Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center, 3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through August 2
TICKETS & INFO: $15 - $22, go to mamaitheatreco.org or call 216-382-5146