Lincoln Center production, transferred to the St James’s Theatre, New York
This production has a great deal going for it, yet it turns out to be less than really successful. It should have been a memorable evening in the theatre, to judge by the first few scenes; instead, it faded toward the end, having failed to come to grips with the issue of Blanche’s sanity, and its loss.
Williams is a master of theatrical atmospherics. This is his forte; it is where his genius lives. Tonight’s production talked of throwing a harsh spotlight on reality — because Blanche herself talks of this, as the thing she most fears — but what we get overall, instead, is a less intense, more consistent light of day, a too constant, insufficiently theatrical realism. Lois Nettleton is an excellent Blanche, a star in the best sense. The play arranges it that center stage is hers, despite the near-balancing act (role vis-à-vis role) provided by Stanley Kowalski. And the Stella of Barbara Eda-Young was warm, domestic, yet a touch earthy, as she must be; and Biff Maguire played a fine, sensitive, well paced Mitch. Furthermore, the open unit set is just right, repeatedly emerging from behind a transparent drop scene of black-outlined wrought iron: not the fancy grill work of the Latin quarter, where all is gay and a little unreal, but the stark, almost hideous angular lines of unadorned railings and balustrades, a harsh framework within which Blanche is imprisoned — as within another inhospitable “Tarantula Arms.” All of this is finely done, and Jules Irving has directed a skillfully paced, sensitive, and at certain points exquisitely timed production.
Yet it is insufficiently redolent of the world Blanche brings with her from her beautiful Belle Reve, now lost. Certain telltale signs emerge along the way to suggest that the requisite air of unreality is lacking. The poker game, for instance, needed more of the sense of bright color that Williams calls for in his stage direction. His comparison with an impressionist painting is not idle literary lip service; it calls for a precise theatrical rendering of vibrant, basic tones. We didn’t notice anything of the sort, since the idiom of the whole production, despite the carefully modified reality of the set, had been one of undifferentiated realistic illusion up to this point. But if the poker game passed by unnoticed, the later scene in which Blanche’s desperate attempt to regain Mitch is intruded upon by the blatantly symbolic flower woman, blindly groping her way on stage with her siren-like cry of “Flores! Flores para los muertos!” coming as a shock. It should not; it should flow naturally, allowing even for its full theatrical bravura, out of the Southern-Gothic, unreal resonances that should have been generated by such things as a much better realized paper lantern and a frankly expressionistic rendering of the Varsouviana — which we unhappily were not allowed to hear. Instead, we are twice treated to “Vienna, City of my Dreams.”
The result was that the total mental regression that Blanche undergoes after Stanley rapes her, a regression into an effectively antebellum world of impossibly gallant men who offer, above all, protection for defenseless women, came across simply as Blanche’s habitual quirky slipperiness of character: the old ability to turn on the charm and face down reality through elaborate pretense. There was not really a conviction that Blanche had passed the point of no return. The appearance of the sympathetic doctor from the asylum, accompanied by his strong-armed, brown-suited female aid, came as a surprise instead of a vulgar inevitability.
It is just possible that Jules Irving had rejected a reading of the play that sees Blanche falling into a final, permanent unreality; in short, insanity. He may have sensed a potentially effective irony in keeping Blanche sane, in some important sense. But Blanche’s last line — “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” — seems to be a clincher only if it has behind it the full mental acquiescence that only permanent regression involves.
Still, the production is well worth seeing. Lois Nettleton is a sensuous, almost full-bodied Blanche, a lot less etherial than Jessica Tandy was (I take it); more of a convincing sister of Stella (so ironically, inaptly named). She has a wonderful, deep-throated yet melodic laugh that plainly spells anxiety. The notion that she depended on the kindness of “strangers” back at the Flamingo Hotel is thoroughly credible. Yet she carries the fascination of the make-believe in every movement, every nuance of voice and gesture, and the only thing that militates against her success is the fundamental shortcoming of the production itself: a failure to appreciate Williams’s unique brand of grotesque, self-conscious flamboyance, a highly personal thing that somehow at the same time speaks so eloquently of the theatre. Williams’s heroines have all been transfused with the life-blood of the theatre; they are creatures of pink light and fancy, whose deaths are caused by acute stage tragedy as much as by anything that common life can inflict. Blanche is not joking when she proclaims herself “La Dame aux Camelias” and Mitch her Armand. Anything less extravagant is less than convincing. This production is, finally, just that.