NEW HAVEN — When Blanche DuBois first sweeps into her sister Stella’s two-room flat, we can already feel the walls closing in on her. In the Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” director Mark Rucker keeps the focus tightly on Blanche and her increasing sense of claustrophobia as she struggles to avoid her inevitable confrontation with “brutal reality.”
While Rucker’s choice is an interesting one, it shifts the emphasis so completely to Blanche that we lose some of the tension central to the quartet of relationships playwright Tennessee Williams so carefully crafted for this play.
The most important pair is Blanche and Stanley Kowalski, Stella’s rough-hewn husband, whom Blanche disdainfully refers to as a subhuman “survivor of the Stone Age.” As Stanley, Joe Manganiello (of HBO’s “True Blood”) physically dominates the stage, not only with his height, but with his incredibly muscled arms and chest. Manganiello finds some playfulness in Stanley’s sarcastic comments toward his sister-in-law, and his strength is intimidating. We witness his increasing rage as Blanche insults him, but we feel no heat behind his hunky good looks. In the pivotal scene on the staircase, when he shouts for his wife, contrite after his display of drunken violence, there’s no vulnerability, no sense of need, let alone love.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Rucker makes an odd directorial choice with that iconic scene, sliding Reid Thompson’s entire apartment set several feet to the left to give more space next to the staircase already visible on stage. It’s a disconcerting and distracting gimmick that eliminates any dramatic tension, and offers no insight into Stanley or Stella.
As Blanche, Rene Augesen captures all of the character’s jittery exhaustion, but rarely digs deeper to explore her darker desires. She chatters away, sneaking drinks, piling up her fantasies and memories, flitting around her sister’s kitchen like a nervous canary bumping into the sides of her cage. But the only moment when Augesen offers a glimpse of Blanche’s former confidence comes with the appearance of the paper boy. Her seduction of the teenager elicited laughter from the audience rather than sympathy or even embarrassment.
Blanche’s only other attempt at seduction is with Mitch (Adam O’Byrne), Stanley’s pal and her momentary beau. O’Byrne is sweetly nondescript, fading so completely into the background that we never feel his attraction to Blanche. After a date, Blanche is clearly bored with him, and so are we.
The most nuanced portrayal in this production comes from Sarah Sokolovic as Stella. In Sokolovic’s hands, Stella’s love for her sister is as solid and unwavering as her love for Blanche’s husband, and she accepts their flaws (Blanche’s criticism, Stanley’s abuse) with patience and good humor. Sokolo-vic’s compelling performance illuminates the ways in which the escalating dislike between her sister and her husband begins to fray her own commitment to each of them. Watching her heart break as she chooses her husband and baby over her sister is more devastating than Blanche’s emotional disintegration.
The ultimate weakness in this production is Rucker’s mistrust of Williams’s glorious language to guide us along this delicate tightrope of human emotions. In addition to overstaging the iconic scene between Stanley and Stella, Rucker dramatizes one of Blanche’s most overwhelming memories upstage behind a scrim. Once again, it distracts from Williams’s intimate portrayal of a woman broken by her own unforgivable act of deliberate cruelty, leaving us with images rather than emotion. By shifting the focus to an unnecessary image and away from Williams’s poetic language, we lose the playwright’s vision of the beauty and fragility of humanity.