Pittsburgh Classic Player’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”: A Study in Meaningful Theatre

By Eva Phillips

Pittsburgh Classic Player’s A Streetcar Named Desire is not an easy thing to sit through. This is in no way a reflection on the quality of the show as a whole—which is extraordinary—nor the performances given by the actors—which are inimitable. Rather, PCP’s adaptation, led fearlessly and artfully by Director Shannon Knapp, is unremittingly committed to presenting every excoriating, uncomfortable, and profoundly human of Tennessee Williams’ play, but through a modern lens that demystifies the legacy of the story that is so problematic. When you are overwhelmed at intermission, it is because everyone involved is doing their jobs very well.

The level of passion and care poured into this production of Streetcar is abundantly apparent to anyone who sits down in the Hazelwood Spartan Community Center to experience the show. Cleverly making use of a space that could easily be deemed “challenging,” Knapp, aided skillfully by Assistant Director Mike Zolovich and Production Stage Manager Jason Via, uses both a thorough understanding of Williams’ conception of setting and space, and a grasp on the arena and its limitations to transform the community center into a turgid Louisiana tenement. The traverse-style staging of PCP’s Streetcar works perfectly with Knapp’s meticulous and thoughtful direction that is ever-aware of where her actors should be and how they should move at all times. This is crucial attention to detail in space and staging is accentuated by a sensitive precision given to the story that allows for moments of physical anguish, assault, and violence to be executed with visible care for the audience and well-being—physical, psychological, and emotional—of the actors, while still achieving jarring verisimilitude. This degree of thought is rare to encounter in theatre-going, and inexpressibly power to witness.

Audience immersion into the complicated and troubled world of Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, Stella Kowalski and their friends and neighbors is tantamount to the actors in Streetcar inhabiting their roles with a complete understanding of the vastness of the psychosocial issues impacting Williams’ characters. More often than not, Streetcar is staged in a way that relies upon and perpetuates damaging tropes—whether that is Stanley’s misogynist mystique, or Blanche’s perceived hysterical femininity. PCP’s Streetcar, contrastingly, unflinchingly humanizes each character, for better or worse, with a modern consciousness imbued into each performance. The entirety of the incredibly talented and refreshing cast is instrumental in elevating the production from high-quality entertainment to a captivating study on human dynamics and behavior. Each member of the cast is electric, particularly Chris Collier in his wonderful depiction of the hapless Mitch, and scene-stealing Rachelmae Pulliam as Eunice. It does feel necessary with such a play as Streetcar, though, to discuss the ecstatic performances of the three leads.

Alyssa Herron’s astounding performance as Blanche is indicative of this re-conceiving of Williams’ characters. To say that Herron embodies Blanche down to the finest hairs on her arm bristling in moments of fearful memory with haunting accuracy would be doing a disservice to her performance. There is a cruel paradox inherent to disintegrating mental health that Herron captures so well in her performance. It is at once a cacophony—everything that is askew, every perceivable imbalance, every voice of distress and confusion screams ceaselessly and irrefragably; and yet it is numbingly shrouded in silence and ineffability. This paradox is all the more pernicious in Southern women, particularly of the era of Streetcar, who are prized for or evaluated on the basis of their demureness, sublimation, and graciousness. The degradation and alienation of women who break this illusion or demonstrate is monstrous. Herron succeeds in simultaneously conveying the vexing qualities of Blanche (her elitist classism; her ageism; her yearning to be waited upon and cared for), and her heart-wrenching mental anguish and severe trauma that manifests in a myriad of ways. Herron triumphs in portraying Blanche as both wildly unlikeable at times and profoundly sympathetic at others, all while adroitly demonstrating that Blanche is aware, to a point, of her consideration, her deterioration, and the complete helplessness of being unable to change the damning impression everyone around her holds about her. It is a performance like any other I’ve seen in quite some time, and one that poignantly reminds me of the fate of so many Southern women in my family and immediate circles.

As Stanley Kowalski, Brett Sullivan Santry exhumes and breathes furious life into a character who has, until now, been played to death as a caricature. Stanley is the epitome of The American Dream and thus, the epitome of The American Problem. He has a stable job; he has a beautiful, funny wife (who, important for many reasons, Stanley knows to be above his class); he has his beloved comforts—bowling and booze, namely—at his disposal that he can share with his friends; and he can rattle off his military stats like the former high school quarterback reliving his game day glory. In the same essence, Stanley is brutishly insecure, tempestuously reactionary, and a violent alcoholic. It is important to characterize Stanley’s life in terms of what he has, because so much of his identity is constructed upon his fiendish need to possess. Santry, ever-self-aware, is an actor skilled enough to deconstruct a character and expose all his unsightly parts right in front of the audience, but do so with such effortlessness that the audience is unaware of this even happening. Much of the brilliance of Santry’s performance is his ability to demonstrate Stanley’s utterly fragile grasp on his life and environment. Every scene, every dialogue exchange in which Stanley feels his possessiveness threatened—Stella challenging him; Blanche’s incessant and vocal disdain and disregard for him; his friends daring to question the toxicity of his behavior—Santry deftly displays Stanley’s utter fragility with flicker of hurt and fear across his face that violent contorts to malice and rage. Every aspect of his performance, from body language, to tonal cues in scenes of escalating verbal abuse, show Santry’s thorough understanding of Stanley—a man who turns his back from the cavernous void in his life to fixate on possessing what he has, who would rather smash, violate, and ruin anything that hints at his imperfection and insecurity. Watching Santry is like watching the lead-up to a confused, tearful confession of a murderer who can’t understand how “it came to this”—it is shocking and it is breathtaking.

Brett Sullivan Santry as Stanley, and Alyssa Herron as Blanche

Jalina McClarin has the immeasurably important and arguably unenviable task of taking on the fraught role of Stella, Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife. She must at once be the connective tissue of the story and mediator between Stanley and Blanche—and, in many ways, a mediator between the characters and the audience—and portray a woman who is ravaged by commitment, guilt, and the war between love and family. She is also trapped by her two identities–“a sister” or “a wife”– and is rarely allowed by those around her to McClarin’s performance is a case study in playing an individual inexorably burdened by the responsibilities and expectations of the world around her. Like Herron, McClarin shows the paradox of deteriorating mental health but from a more relatable perspective (relatable only in the sense that presumably an audience is compromised of more folks who have witness someone experience mental health issues like Blache’s, rather than experience those issues personally). Her performance is beautifully subtle yet perpetually on the edge, as she tries to reconcile the relationship with her sister and her devotion to Stanley, while dealing with the undeniable ramifications of Blanche’s and Stanley’s behavior. McClarin is in many ways the heart of the play, and her flawless performance probingly addresses race, the debilitating demands of caring for people who can’t actually see you as a person, and the consequences of crushing misogyny in all forms.

Pittsburgh Classic Player’s take on A Streetcar Desire is revival in the most glorious sense of the word—it vivifies the story in such a way that is transcendent, and allows the audience to not merely witness phenomenal acting and theatre production, but intensely examine the paradigm in which we live and the ways we continue to perpetuate behaviors and ideas that leaves you speechless. Go to Streetcar. You will feel uncomfortable. You will be moved to discuss the unpleasant things. And you will also experience one of the most radically engaging and masterful plays and collection of performances that you might ever get a chance to see.

Streetcar runs through July 28th. For tickets and more information, visit their site. 

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