The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre always reminds me of the theater in my hometown. It brings a nostalgic peace that only a red velvet seat can bring. Waiting in that seat, I had no idea what I was about to watch. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, is one of those classic plays where I recognize the name but have no idea what it’s about. I decided to leave it a surprise, and indeed, I was left pretty speechless.
Put on by the student-run theater troupe Rude Mechanicals, “A Streetcar Named Desire” tackles extremely difficult topics: rape, mental illness, domestic violence, manipulation and more. At a college level, it was impressive to see how the actors and the whole team handled the material. The play was directed by School of Music, Theatre & Dance senior BFA Marty McGuire and produced by a clearly enthusiastic and visionary team.
The story follows Blanche Dubois (SMTD senior Juliana Tassos), an aging debutante who goes to stay with her sister Stella (SMTD junior Mallory Avnet) in New Orleans. Blanche disapproves of Stella’s small living space and her “common” husband Stanley (SMTD senior Jack Alberts), but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
The first act sets up the scene and the complex relationships between the characters. The second act hits like a freight train, filled with surprises and tragedies. Here are the highlights (spoilers!): Stanley has a pattern of beating his wife Stella and begging for forgiveness (and she always forgives). Blanche tries to marry one of Stanley’s friends, but Stanley tells his friend that Blanche is known for sleeping around with minors (which is true). Stella goes to the hospital to deliver her baby while Stanley rapes Blanche back at home. Blanche falls into a state of insanity. The play ends with Stella sending her sister away to a mental institution.
Needless to say, a lot happens in this play.
Like the title of the play, Blanche takes a series of streetcars to arrive at her sister’s house. Blanche transferred from a streetcar named Desire to one called Cemeteries and finally to one named Elysian Fields. According to greek mythology, Elysian Fields means land of the dead. This journey forecasted the end, connecting man’s journey from deep primitive desire to death. We see this very pattern in Blanche. She tried to rely on her sexuality to preserve her youth, but it was this desire that lead to her demise.
Tassos, who plays Blanche, was a real stand out. Her character was so captivating, conveyed with an accented voice that was real and penetrating. Watching her fall from reality into fantasy was powerful and tragic. Tassos was able to convince the audience of Blanche’s devastating life, pulling us into her sorrow.
The character of Stanley really got under my skin, and I think it is supposed to. Alberts played Stanley as compellingly manipulative of his wife; it’s the kind of behavior that I want to believe doesn’t exist anymore. Yet I think it makes me so angry because I know that this kind of domestic violence and treatment of women does still happen, even though it isn’t 1950 anymore.
As the play progresses, Stanley hunches his back more. He throws aggressive tantrums and pounds on the table. He even beats his chest. Stanley looks and acts like an ape. He is not just common, as Blanche initially calls him. He is an animal who relies on his desires.
Raw. Tense. Primitive. The play projected these feelings consistently throughout. I didn’t feel them right away, but it wasn’t long before I realized these heavy feelings had sneaked inside of me, waiting and wondering. The story is a dismal reflection of mankind, highlighting primitive desire in human nature and the harrowing consequences of that instinct.
My previous assumptions of this play as another dry mid-twentieth century play were shattered by this performance. This play is relevant to the way we view and treat women. It is relevant to the way we discuss lower class citizens and people with mental illness. Even today, this play is able to speak about unspeakable topics, bringing mankind’s desires into the light in an effort to prevent us from traveling into Elysian Fields.