Theater Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (Williamstown Theatre Festival on Audible starring Audra McDonald)

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by Tony Frankel on December 2, 2020

in Theater-New York,Virtual


Since struggle for power among the classes is one of the main themes in Tennessee Williams’ still-shocking A Streetcar Named Desire, it makes perfect sense that director Robert O’Hara would choose to update the Pulitzer Prize winner for modern times with a multicultural cast, including Audra McDonald as Stella and Carla Gugino as her sister Blanche — one is black, the other white. The Big Easy here becomes a multicultural stew – a logical conceit given that even in the ‘40s when the play was written, every human shade and color could be found in the polyglot world of the French Quarter.

What is interesting here is that this won’t matter to audiences of this brand new production, which opens December 3, 2020, courtesy of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. That’s because it has been taped as a radio play, utilizing much of the cast that was to appear on stage last June. But when you listen to the successful recording on Audible, you will never imagine that this project was done during COVID from the thespians’ homes (some sitting in their closet). For me, upon listening, I do believe that Mr. O’Hara’s casting choices informed his production because it is a riveting, guttural listen. Close your eyes, sit back, and with the aid of Lindsay Jones‘s superb sound design of Foley and music, be transported to the wrought iron balconies and damp heat of New Orleans.

A Southern Belle schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois, arrives in New Orleans needing the aegis of her sister and brutish brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley Kowalski, for relief from the loss of her childhood home and all the small-town secrets and gossip. Stella and Stanley already have a volatile relationship, but the cramped quarters and Blanche’s deceptions only serve to pour gas on the already existing flame. Over the course of one hot, sultry New Orleans summer, Blanche’s fragile façade slowly crumbles as she meets her match in the rough-hewn, working-class Stanley.

Audra McDonald. Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein.

At the center of this 160-minute effort is the not-to-be-missed performance of Ms. McDonald, whose nostalgia, vulnerability, and attractions make her fantasies sound real. With the complexity that powerfully and gradually take Blanche into a fantasy world toward insanity, McDonald — an actress of outstanding depth — digs into the demanding role with playful, frightening self-destructiveness. She even at times sounded a bit like the self-destructive Billie Holiday, a role that won her a Best Actress Tony (and that’s a complement).

Even on radio, Ariel Shafir has an effortless sexuality: Empty of all but hormones and phony pride, his Stanley is casually cruel, no-nonsense, repellent, and resilient. Yet when Stanley bellows out “Stella,” pleading for his pregnant wife to come back to his bed after he had brutally slapped her in a drunken fit, Shafir does not so much shout “Stella” as bawl it from a very deep pain and remorse. Gugino’s Stella offers solid support in a divided role, and Sullivan Jones as the salt-of-the-earth “Mitch” makes each moment feel spontaneous. The phenomenal cast includes Joel Reuben GanzJoe Goldammer, Carmen M. Herlihy, Brian Lucas, Stacey Raymond, and Cesar J. Rosado.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Williamstown Theatre Festival
begins December 3, 2020
for tickets, visit Audible

special access to all seven titles in the WTF Season on Audible
will be made available to eligible WTF donors

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