October 01, 1986

Street from the Heart

Street from the Heart
A Streetcar Named Desire
Harvest Theatre Co.,
The Arts Theatre

The Harvest Theatre Company wended its way to Adelaide recently for a season at the Arts Theatre of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. In keeping with Harvest’s charter, this production has toured regional centres in Western Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, playing more than forty performances and linking with local theatre groups along the way.

It must be quite a punishing schedule but there was certainly no sign of battle fatigue in either the performers or the set, when Harvest garnered very good attendances for their Adelaide stint.

Like the very best melodrama, Streetcar comes within a B-grade whisker of being hokum. William’s over-heated pseudo-poeticisms and his fascination with deviance are the inky trademarks of all his plays but in Streetcar, unlike the more off the-wall of his communiques from Babylon, Williams mixes a compelling enough jigger of Southern discomfort for Harvest not to seem as though it has exhumed a very old magnolia from the theatre’s little shop of hoaries.

As with Miller’s Death of a Salesman which opened within eighteen months of Streetcar‘s 1948 debut, much has dated in the play. The bluenote motifs ·and all those negro people with rhythm yass yass are archly self-conscious and Williams’s dreamy fondness for old ante-Bellum Belle Reve suggests his nibs having been too long on the mint juleps and too short on the historical realities. But, of course, that is the very poignancy of the work : that, despite its being as purple as a baboon, its conflicts and energies continue to touch audiences.

Director Leslie Dayman has made some very clear decisions about just where the centre of the play is, and in doing so he has strengthened his production. The character Of Stanley Kowalski, immortalised by Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s magnificent film, is a problem for any-director who pays too much heed to the playwright’s notes. Tennessee gets downright. clammy about Stanley, his rough trade Adonis, refering to him as “the gaudy seed-bearer”; “Animal joy in his being implicit in all his movements. and. attitudes”, he rhapsodises.

When the playwright turns to Blanche DuBois, the fading belle with the moth-like frailty, he similarly identifies with her and pleads her case. Dayman has rightly observed that it is Blanche’s play and Blanche’s tragedy. This is not merely because Helen Morse is such a drawcard for the show – in fact her performance is so moving precisely for not being a star turn – but because that is where the durable meaning of Streetcar remains. As Kazan himself noted, even when she’s off the rails Blanche has more moral centre than the others in the play and we are constantly forced to acknowledge that, with her touching faith in the kindness of strangers, she suffers in ways that are more telling about the world than about her.

All Stanley’s energy and magnetism, which, for Williams, represented the vitality of the future unemcumbered by gentility, seem to audiences now as merely the imbecilities of the yob. The domestic violence and rapturous reconciliations between Stanley and Stella we rightly see with Blanche’s sense of horror and not from Williams’ apparently urbane viewpoint that this is the authentic charge of eroticism.

Helen Morse’s performance is very finely judged; notwithstanding the fact that she is a shade too robust for Blanche, she brings those elements of dignity and pathetic unreality which make it such a challenging theatre role. Morse is a generous actor who never unduly dominates a scene even when unmatched as, for instance, by Bill Charlton’s Mitch whose convincing physical presence is marred by his Gomer Pyle accent.

David Clisby as Stanley is, I suspect, deliberately uncompelling. There is a hint of disavowal in the acting that gives Stanley his place in the drama but refuses the grandeur with which Williams invests him. Deborah Little as Stella, on the other hand, gives a performance equal to Helen Morse and their scenes together are some of the finest moments in the play.

Casey Van Sebille’s murky set works well and is generously detailed for a touring production. The brash use of large tonal drop-out photographs of old Elysian New Orleans as backgrounds to the low-rent interiors of Chez Kowalski is effectively expressionistic and Sven Knutsen and Susan Grey Gardner’s lighting – so central to the play’s themes- gratify its lurid mood without grotesquery or cliche.

Harvest can be very proud of this venture and it must be seen as something of a coup for Artistic Director Brian Debnam. Intelligent performances and shrewd and decisive direction have shown that Streetcar need not run on the tramlines of nostalgia but can be hailed still as a moving play in any contemporary repertoire.

“Street from the Heart” The Adelaide Review, No.31, October, 1986, p.30.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment