In March, when it became apparent that live theater would be almost impossible to produce during the Covid-19 pandemic, many theaters either shut down or experimented with streaming platforms.
Williamstown Theatre Festival’s artistic director, Mandy Greenfield, decided to go another route. She chose to record seven plays, mostly with the originally scheduled casts, into audio books.
The first of those recordings, “A Streetcar Named Desire” has just been released. Three other titles, “Photograph 51,” “Animals,” and “Chonburi International Hotel and Butterfly Club” will be made available on a weekly basis during December. The remaining plays will be released early in 2021.
Clearly, the decision to release “Streetcar Named Desire” is a wise marketing choice. Not only is it a familiar and beloved masterpiece written by Tennessee Williams, it has star power. The iconic role of Blanche DuBois is played by six-time Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald.
However, the choice is also dangerous. The play is performed frequently with many great actors in lead roles. In the original Broadway production, the brutish Stanley Kowalski was defined by Marlon Brando. Jessica Tandy played the tragic Blanche DuBois. Blanche’s sister, Stella, who is Stanley’s wife, was performed by Kim Hunter. Karl Malden played Blanche’s would-be boyfriend, Mitch. For the classic film, the only change was Vivian Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche.
Wisely, the Audible creation understands the medium in which it is offered. It does not attempt to compete with legends. Indeed, instead of a highly intense, overly dramatic production, director Robert O’Hara treats the material almost like a chamber opera. He guides his actors to offer almost understated performances.
This approach diminishes some of the passion tha fuels the work, but it still finds fire in the highly charged moments. However, they are more akin to personal arias that illuminate rather than scorch. O’Hara and his cast make this a production about people, rather than types.
An additional benefit is that because the characters are life-sized their flaws are defined through the poetic beauty of Williams’ language. There are many moments in this audio presentation that seem as if you are hearing passages for the first time.
Too, the dynamics between the characters seem shifted. The relationship between Blanche and Stella is more at the heart of this effort. Audra McDonald’s character is still a delusional woman living an invented life. Her taking advantage of Stella’s hospitality is also grating. But as every great interpretation of Blanche must, McDonald forces the listener to be compassionate for the pathetic life the woman lives.
Helping to develop this compassion is the love and understanding Carla Gugino as Stella displays for Blanche. This is a woman truly divided between her passion for her husband and her sincere love of her sister. The proof of Gugino's compassionate performance is that at play’s end, you doubt if her marriage will stay intact.
Ariel Shafir wisely does not try to overpower the radio play with a loud, dominant portrayal of Stanley as a savage. His Stanley is a jerk, not a brute. He is more despicable because he’s a sinister bully rather than an ignorant lout. His Stanley, who certainly isn’t a good husband, but is likely not even a good friend to his male buddies.
He certainly isn’t to Mitch, who looks to Blanche as a cure for his own loneliness. Played softly by Sullivan Jones, Mitch is a weak man, who is defined by the shallow sense of manhood which reflects the era of the 1940’s, in which the play takes place.
The presentation takes a while to get into, and it’s not until the characters become established that the story takes over. Also, at two and a half hours in length, the work seems, at times, overwritten – as are most plays of that period. But an extra half hour of the words of Tennessee Williams is not a punishment.
Adding to the beauty of the language and the tenderness of the female characters is the delicate original music and sound design of Lindsay Jones. It is sometimes obvious, but rarely distracting as it enhances the sensitive mood of one of the great plays of the 20th century.
It’s not live theater, but it is a respectable substitute.
For subscription information and individual access go to audible.com or wtfestival.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.