“Stella!” For those old enough to remember that iconic, single line, and even those not familiar with Tennessee William’s classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, that gut-wrenching scream cuts straight through our veins. As far as I’m concerned, no other play of that era has that brutal beauty, evoking such explosive emotion on stage, as well as on the screen.
First produced on stage in 1947 and later released in film in 1951, the play starred theatrical giants Marlon Brandon [Stanley Kowalsky] and Vivien Leigh [Blanche DuBois] at the peak of their craft.
A Streetcar Named Desire is better than Williams’ other successes, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, because, the author used the element of true tragedy with such wit the audience is left lionizing a despicable, brute of a character named Stanley [Danny Gavigan]. In true parable form, which is artfully hidden in the body of the play, the author’s own words give us a glimpse of its theme, “beauty is shipwrecked on the rock of the world’s vulgarity.”
This despairing but lovely play starts with Blanche [Kathy McCafferty], as a fragile Southern Belle, who after losing the family home, her husband, and her job, shows up at her sister Stella’s [Annie Grier] house on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
While the audience is exposed to the brilliance and magic of the PBD stage, you see only the agonizing struggle and suffering of its main character. Blanche is a sweet magnolia of a woman who’s lost in her sweet aroma of bath salts, and whose dreams for a “happy ending” never materialize. Her life is a lie, and no one sees this better than her brother-in-law, Stanley, a man with such an animal force she goes on to call him “bestial, sub-human, caveman, and ape-like.”
But Blanche is also insightful and sees right through Stanley and Stella’s marriage, and the unhappiness that accompanies the animal magnetism within their relationship. Their small apartment creates the setting of such chaos—a place so unlike her beloved home in Mississippi.
After one of Stanley’s poker games with the boys, Stanley’s brutal assault on his pregnant wife leaves him in the doghouse and crying for mercy. The next morning, Blanche rushes in a panic toward Stella, imploring her to leave him and save herself and her unborn child from a life of misery.
In the background, we see Stanley’s vulnerable side as he overhears his sister-in-law’s rampage about what a brute he is. He’s cut to the core, it seems, and for a split moment we sympathize with Stanley, only to see him bouncing back in true form, and pouncing on Blanche with animal force, showing her the mad man she knows him to be. Stanley fights back. He uses his powerful force over Stella, swaying her with his sexual moves and handling her thoughts like easy prey. He reveals her sister’s true identity—an impostor, a cheater, a liar, a pathetic, half-demented, loose woman who parades in cheap, colorful motels called Flamingo looking for her next shot of whiskey and an array of gentleman callers using her “old” southern charms as a front.
Gavigan’s Stanley has that incredible animal magnetism that makes Stella’s devotion to him understandable. And it is Blanche’s seductive softness that he is hostile to. In a classic moment in theatre, we see Stanley and Stella dancing to the tune of their obsession—each other, while we watch Blanche tip into complete madness.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, Williams’ Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Blanche’s character forever etched Vivien Leigh’s name into film and stage history. But something has to be said about McCafferty’s stellar performance.
If you think back and beyond to the play’s scandalous content when it was first released in the late 40s, which included adultery, rape, promiscuity, and homosexuality, to today’s view on those issues, McCafferty brings a strong performance as she plays this fragile woman whose true nature is discovered under that naked light bulb she so often tries to avoid. It is a human condition that’s universal and doesn’t get old with time.
When watching this play, I must admit that Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh’s definitive performances remain tattooed on my memory. And while I was more prepared to be seduced by Gavigan, a very attractive actor whose stage presence and chemistry fills the main stage of Palm Beach Dramaworks, it is McCafferty’s voice with Williams’ lyrical prose that filled my ears—the heart-rendering story of a woman who wanted nothing out of life but to be loved and be taken care of by a gentleman. Her tragic fate was sealed the second she said “I do” to her “beautiful boy” when she was a teen. However, in the last few minutes of the play, we understand her true predicament in life changed when she transferred from a streetcar named Desire to another one called Cemeteries.
A Streetcar Named Desire is an iconic masterpiece, and another exceptionally good play presented by Palm Beach Dramaworks. A fantastic way to open a new season. Superb!
Palm Beach Dramaworks is a professional not-for-profit theatre company located at 201 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For tickets and information on show times, visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org