Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Regarding Blanche: A Response to Todd Wallinger's Indy Review

First, Todd, let me thank you for a great review ( It’s much appreciated. I wanted to say a couple of things, though. 
The most important is that we’re NOT using real cigarettes. It’s illegal to smoke tobacco products in public establishments, even onstage. Telling people that is likely to keep them away from our show, and that’s not good. I’m hoping that after reading this you might be willing to print a retraction in next week’s edition so that it only endangers one weekend’s attendance, which, for a house our size, can mean a great deal. Instead, we’re using hand-rolled mullein which, when smoked, is used to treat respiratory ailments ( We planned to have the fan going, as well, but as you pointed out, the lights were using too much power. The building was wired in the 30’s, some of the wiring is unstable and it, not the crew, is having some problems handling our lights; the assumption that we would take the trouble to install all of that, which took weeks, and then not use that time to teach our board ops how to use it is just silly. I know critics have to play it close to the vest, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask about things now and again. We’ve addressed that issue now, at any rate; the lights are stable and the ventilation is back.

Regarding Blanche: I chose to interpret Blanche a little differently than some have. I don’t think she is a coquette (“a woman,” according to Merriam-Webster, “who endeavors without sincere affection to gain the attention and admiration of men”) – though she has her moments - as much as a woman who has used sex to punish herself, among other things, for the guilt and anguish she felt after her young husband’s suicide; there is no indication that she was promiscuous before that happened. Sex for Blanche has been a means to an end: “After the death of Allan, intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with. I think it was panic – just panic – that drove me from one to another in search of some protection…” She is deftly manipulative, to be sure, and often dishonest, but I’m not sure what you mean by coquettish; Blanche is a grown woman, not a debutante. A lady accomplished in the art of commanding male attention goes about it subtly: she certainly doesn’t have to show the effort. In my opinion, the notion that coquettishness got Blanche into trouble is a very shallow interpretation; Blanche is also a woman of penetrating intelligence, a characteristic that seems to be overlooked quite often in favor of her sexuality and personal frailties. The decline of her life has been brought on by things much darker and deeper than the empty desire to be admired. Her agenda is much more complex and a good deal more serious than that, the stakes much higher, and she tells us so.
I intended to depart from the archaic view of Blanche as a soiled woman whose sexual past negates the possibility of sincerity or innocence or decency. She is not rapacious, nor does she crave male attention for its own sake. I believe the traditional view of her through the lens of sexual judgment only skims the surface of who she actually is, and I wanted to go deeper.
Though Blanche is plainly unstable, I also don’t think she completely loses her grip on reality as early on as some people tend to assume. Remember: she’s not (…spoiler alert) taken away to an institution at the end because she’s crazy; she’s put there because her sister Stella doesn’t want to believe the horrible truth about her husband. It’s Stella who doesn’t want to face reality, not Blanche.  Yes, people with the disorders from which she likely suffers do, in fact, dissociate at times and succumb to delusion, especially under serious stress or trauma – like being raped by your brother-in-law while your sister is giving birth. But the text doesn’t support the notion of her as someone who is completely, irretrievably insane. Nothing she says in the previous two scenes before she is finally taken away is actually that crazy. Some of it is lies, some is wishful thinking, some of it is truth – but she knows she’s lying when she lies. In fact, in the last scene with Mitch, just two scenes from the end, she’s more brutally honest about herself and the reality of her life and choices than she has ever been. She doesn’t let go of reality until AFTER Stanley brutalizes her and her sister, whom Blanche calls “all I’ve got in the world,” refuses to accept that this violation has happened so that she can stay with him and keep enjoying the “things that happen between a man and woman in the dark.” Further, people who do dissociate and who become delusional can often sound very reasonable about their own delusions; after all, they don’t know that that’s what they are. I’ve seen very fine actresses descend into the maudlin and succumb to the impulse to ‘play crazy’ in this role, and frankly I consider it the most ham-fisted and least imaginative choice.

Blanche has issues, to be sure – serious ones. But people who have those issues are real; this was someone Tennessee knew and loved, and he wanted us to see why he loved them. Over the years critics have blamed Blanche for her own rape and her institutionalization has been characterized as appropriate; I disagree, and I think Tennessee does, too. What society saw as her departure from ‘reality’ was actually her departure from appropriate behavior; an unforgivable sin for a woman. Tennessee’s own sister was put away and subjected to one of the first wave of an epidemic of pre-frontal lobotomies performed mostly on women, not for being insane in the true sense of the word but for having some behavioral and possibly chemical issues and for being inappropriately sexual, and he never got over what had happened to his dear Rose, whom he called “the best of us;” when you place Blanche in that context it becomes clear what he was trying to tell us about her. Mostly she’s just a desperate woman with nowhere to go, in a world which has no place for her, who uses the appeal that has gained her such admiration in the past to try to find some safety, and whose behavior becomes more outrageous and departs further and further from propriety as she fails. She may retreat into idealism or outdated notions from time to time, but in many ways Blanche is incredibly strong and much more realistic than we give her credit for. In fact, I think it’s important to consider that the trip to the asylum isn’t the end of Blanche’s story; it’s just where we leave her.

I’m not protective of my own performance as much as I am of Tennessee and of Blanche; nor am I offended by your review: you were very complimentary, and I appreciate that. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I got this exactly right: no actress ever really does; it’s far too deep and dense a role for any one performer to find and do justice to everything that Williams put into it. It’s kind of the Lear of female roles that way. Tennessee used to tell each actress he worked with on this role that she was his favorite Blanche, because there were so many ways to interpret it; each interpretation is going to focus on some of the nearly endless facets of this profoundly complex character and see them differently than another performer – or reviewer – might think they should. In the world of interactive media, however, reviews have become opportunities for interesting artistic discussions rather than the one-sided pronouncements they once were, and I think that’s great for everyone, including the audience. Criticism is an art; their work, like ours, is open for interpretation and evaluation.

 There’s infinitely more to Blanche than most people who don’t delve deeply tend to see. Williams has given us a portrait of a fragile, flawed woman of substance in serious trouble and out of control, not a weak, delusional flibbertigibbet whose vanity and flirtatiousness have brought her to a deservedly bad end. We’ve accepted a set of givens about women and sex and sanity in the past that demean and dismiss women in general and Blanche in particular. I think looking beyond that makes for a much more interesting experience.


David Plambeck: Streetcar Director's Notes

"There is love of course. And then there's life, its enemy."
— Jean Anouilh

Welcome to the Star Bar production of Tennessee Williams' immortal play A Streetcar Named Desire.

At this point in the early Twenty-First Century, it seems superfluous to muse on the play itself. It is a true classic of American theatre. Blanche's route to the French Quarter ("They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemetery and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields!") summarizes, in one frantic burst of dialog, the journey we all take from the cradle to the grave. In this breathtaking, emotional, raw, brutal work, Williams dissects a moment in the lives of four living, breathing human beings, people as hopeful, disillusioned, idealistic, realistic—as truly alive—as you, our audience, gathered in this theater tonight.

The Desire Line ran from 1920 to 1948, at the height of streetcar use in New Orleans. The tale told in this work has run through our lives since our collective beginnings of awareness, and will continue to run until the last human vanishes from the face of the Earth. That is the power of this work of literature.

Relax and enjoy an evening of theatre that will entertain you, that will delight and horrify you—and, hopefully, will startle you with recalled memories and flashes of self-recognition.

Streetcar: The Beginning of Our Journey

I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be truth…
-        Blanche Dubois

Well, our Streetcar has begun its journey, and so far it’s been wonderful. We had a little trouble with the lights this first weekend, but that’s par for the course in a building that was wired 70+ years ago. In trying to keep the lights on we were unable to run the fan, which gave the audience an even more immersive experience; it really felt like the Big Easy in there.

Yet and still, despite the slight glitches, this looks like the beginning of a wonderful run. Heather Clark’s costumes are utterly sumptuous; Curt Layman and Jim Campbell have created another amazing set; Michael Stansbery gave us a glorious lighting scheme, and Bob Morsch’s sound provides just the right atmosphere, transporting us back to 1940’s New Orleans. The standing ovation on opening night leads us to believe that our audience got what we were hoping to give them.

Our actors, too, have really risen to the occasion. This is a grueling play to perform. Williams knows how to entrance an audience better than maybe anyone – but he does it by demanding more of his actors than most playwrights. His work is hard work. Both Stanley and Blanche are technical tightropes on which a performer must balance carefully to avoid falling into caricature. We’ve got an amazing cast, from our doctor, Phil Ginsburg - local poet, playwright and Most Interesting Man in the Springs - to our young, young, young young man, Ethan Durant Childress, a brand-spanking-new actor, 14 years old and quite the find.

This show is profoundly sentimental to me; I played Blanche the first time when I was 16, in Miss Hester’s 11th-grade English class. Since then I have yearned for the opportunity to approach it again, for real this time. I came to know Tennessee Williams first from the great actor and director Bob Pinney, who understood him and his women completely and lovingly and translated that understanding to his actors and audience with shining clarity. I played Laura in his Glass Menagerie a thousand years ago, an experience so deep and rich that the chord it struck in me continues to resound as strongly today as it did then. Williams’ work isn’t just literature or theatre: it’s truth.

Every decade ought to have its own Streetcar. Every so often theatergoers ought to have the chance to see quintessential works like this done live, and a new generation of actors should have the opportunity to approach these iconic roles. Works as true and enduring, as enormous as this one, don’t need updating or reinterpreting; we, the actors, the directors, the sound designers and set-builders, have the responsibility of meeting the challenge with reverence and honesty. We aren’t arrogant enough to think we bring life to pieces like this; they have a life of their own, so vast and vibrant that all we can do is jump in and do our best.