Published October 08. 2013 4:00AM
Tickets are hard to come by for the Yale Rep production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," which runs at the University Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 12. But the audience is not necessarily buying tickets to see this classic of American theater. Instead, many are there to see Joe Manganiello of "True Blood" fame in the iconic role of Stanley Kowalski.
Tennessee Williams's play centers on Blanche DuBois, who lands on her younger sister's doorstep in New Orleans. Blanche and Stella had grown up on a deteriorating plantation in Mississippi. While Stella escaped to New Orleans to make her way, Blanche stayed behind, nursing aging, dying relatives and teaching school. Stella's life is very different from the faded grandeur and pretentions of her past: she has married Stanley Kowalski, a rough-around-the edges guy, and they live in a small apartment in a lower-class neighborhood.
Blanche is clearly shocked by both the living conditions and Stanley's uncultured ways, but also somewhat attracted to him. For Blanche has her own problems, including her "nerves" and her desire to escape from the reality of her past and her present. She still views herself as a Southern belle, though she is aging.
Into the mix comes Mitch, a friend of Stanley's-they were in the same unit during World War II-who lives with his mother and becomes attracted to Blanche and her ladylike airs.
During the course of the play, Williams explores the sisters' relationships, passion, the "life force," delusions, lies, and truth-telling and its consequences.
Manganiello has a tough act to follow. The film role of Stanley propelled Marlon Brando to stardom, and the role has been played by many fine actors. It seems clear that Manganiello tries hard to capture Stanley. On the plus side, he does a fine job of showing us Stanley's more vulnerable side: he does care about Stella and he is like a little boy afraid to be vulnerable or gentle. The scene in which he calls for Stella to come home is touching. But surprisingly he doesn't always project the passion in the man and the brute force. Too often, it seems as he twitches his muscles that he's channeling Rocky Balboa.
But for much of the audience, just looking at his chiseled body is more than enough.
René Augesen is a fine, if not outstanding, Blanche. She is most effective when she is telling the truth, as in the scene in which she talks to Stella about the difficulties of helping aging relatives through the business of dying. And she certainly captures the flirtatiousness of Blanche, particularly in her scenes with Stanley.
Sarah Sokolovic as Stella doesn't quite show the woman caught between her upbringing, her sister, and the husband whose animal magnetism is addictive. Adam O'Byrne plays Mitch as a gentle contrast to Stanley, someone who cares for Blanche but turns on her when he cannot face the truth about her.
Some of the blame for the failures of this production have to be laid at the feet of director Mark Rucker. For one, the set seems oddly arranged. We see about four feet of the apartment above the Kowalskis, so every so often you see legs walking around accompanying what are usually off-stage conversations. Why? Rucker has also shown us memory scenes from Blanche's past, which confused some audience members. The result was to slow the pace of the show, which runs longer than three hours with two intermissions.
This "Streetcar" is not the best production, but it is still worthwhile. What came through in this production, more than I've noticed in others, is that when Blanche tells the truth, the results are disastrous. It is at those moments you best understand and feel sympathy for her. After all, at times the truth is so difficult we all need illusions.