Reviewed by Linda Armstrong
Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire, set in New Orleans’s French Quarter, is enjoying a stunning revival at the Broadhurst Theatre on West 44th Street in New York City. Exploding with human emotion, the play examines mental illness: a woman on the edge in the household of a domineering and brutal husband and a submissive wife. It was first mounted on Broadway in 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, starring Marlon Brando as Stanley, Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Except for Tandy, all appeared in the 1951 movie version, with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. This is the cast that was long associated with A Streetcar Named Desire. That may well change.
Today’s casting reflects an approach to Streetcar that is innovative and brilliant. Co-producer Stephen Byrd chose a majority minority cast, with African-Americans in lead roles — Blair Underwood as Stanley, Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche, Wood Harris as Mitch; and Hispanic actress Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella. “I read and did a lot of research on Tennessee Williams. He wrote with a soul-fullness, a poetry that we could relate to. It was like Billie Holiday singing. He said that he always wanted to write for Black people, but he didn’t know how…This resonates with us, it’s our story,” Byrd says.
Byrd’s cast is phenomenal. Underwood, Parker and Harris, who are making their Broadway debut, deliver outstanding performances. Parker nailed her character to the last detail, from the Southern accent to the nervous fast-talking. She found it easy to identify with Blanche, she says. “Tennessee Williams writes about characters who endure. And our people, in the history of this country have endured from the beginning to now. So, in the fiber of our being we are made for Tennessee Williams’ material,” she says.
Underwood portrays Stanley as an intelligent, defensive, forceful character. He feels privileged to have the role. “This is a great role because you tap into the entire spectrum of human emotions. And the way it’s written and portrayed, anyone can relate to this man. You can relate to his humanity and his vulnerability. He’s very much a man-child. He’s a spoiled brat on one side and he’s a beast and a brut on the other side,” Underwood explains.
Rubin-Vega, formerly of the Broadway hit Rent and Anna in the Tropics, brings her unique compassion, passion and understanding to the role of Stella. She helps the audience to see how deeply she loves her husband, even as that love causes great strain between her and her sister, Blanche. She communicates vividly that Stella, as much as Blanche, Stanley and Mitch, suffers tremendously throughout the play. “This is a brutally human American tragedy and I want people to be moved,” Rubin-Vega shared.
Harris’ character, Mitch, is sweet, kind and a gentleman — just what Blanche needs. He is dedicated to caring for his sick mother. Like Blanche, he desperately needs someone in his life to make him feel special and is devastated when he finds out that everything about Blanche is not what it seems to be. Harris would like audiences to leave with an enlightened understanding of Streetcar. He says, “I hope the play is a fast ride for the audience. I want people to be immersed in what we’re doing. I want the audience to experience the arch of what the characters go through.”
This production of Streetcar is marvelous proof of the positive chemistry that comes with nontraditional casting. Other African-Americans in the cast include Aaron Clifton Moten, Carmen de Lavallade, Count Stovall and Hispanic actors Jacinto Taras Riddick and Rosa Evangelina Arredondo. Some of the actions play multiple roles. There are also white co-stars Amelia Campbell and Matthew Saldivar, who have more fights than Stella and Stanley as upstairs neighbors Eunice and Steve. The script and the actors’ performances come together gloriously under the direction of Emily Mann.
For information, visit Broadway.com; for tickets, call 866-276-4887 or 212-239-6200.