That’s the best way to approach Pittsburgh Classic Players’ production of Streetcar, directed by Shannon Knapp, who is also the communications and administrative associate at Quantum Theater. As the show wore on, the explosive interactions between Blanche and Stanley invariably sent my eyes to Jalina McClarin’s Stella and the way she reflected the light and energy off of her sister and husband’s volatile chemistry. Sometimes it’s more brutal to see a person witness an explosion than to see the explosion itself.
And good god, what a brutal play this is. If you haven’t read or seen it since high school, it might be time to explore it again. Everybody remembers the big stuff — the French Quarter, the very-1940s portrayal of sexual tension and homosexuality and promiscuity, the “Stella!” — but watching this production reminded me of what’s really at the core of Tennessee Williams’ play, which isn’t the kindness of strangers, but the cruelty of family. It’s a testament to how unsettlingly easy it is for hatred to be wrapped up in our relationships to the people we love.
A plot refresher, if you’re hazy: a prim, self-styled Southern belle named Blanche DuBois (Alyssa Herron) lost the family plantation in Mississippi and taken a “leave of absence” from her teaching job to spend some time with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley (Brett Sullivan Santry, co-founder of Pittsburgh Classic Players) in a sweaty New Orleans apartment in 1947. Stella is pregnant, meek, and more turned-on than horrified by her husband’s aura of apish testosterone. (The script’s portrayal of Stanley as animalistic is not subtle; it’s shouted from the rooftops, or from the street, in this case.) The apartment is not big enough to contain the in-laws’ egos, and over the play’s two acts, he meticulously whittles Blanche down to a nub before she eventually succumbs to an agonizing mental breakdown.
There’s an immediacy to this performance which is both metaphorical and literal, since Knapp has thoughtfully staged the production in the tight confines of the Spartan Community Center in Hazelwood. Audience capacity was around 40, and since the space was not air-conditioned, guests were given rigid handheld fans and served lemon Coke and pralines as a nod to 1940s New Orleans. Sweating alongside the actors in a small space might seem contrived if pulled off differently, but the wet shine on Stanley’s bald head had the visceral effect of time-and-place setting that it intended. I kind of wanted to ask Stanley for a beer.
Knapp’s production is a deeply satisfying experience, or as at least as deeply satisfying as a story with domestic violence, rape, and mental illness can be. It’s hard to know what to take away from it besides its humanity and honesty; there are certainly no positive morals to share with loved ones when you get home. But the story is what it is: an investigation of our worst impulses told through two profoundly unwell people who should never have so much as been in the same room. All we can do is sit, react, like Stella, and watch.