Though the reason many have migrated north this fall to New Haven to catch Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring TV actor Joe Manganiello (True Blood) in the role of animalistic lover-fighter-bowler Stanley Kowalski, has been to catch one of their hunky favorite actors live and in the flesh, there are numerous other pleasures to be found in Mark Rucker’s serviceable if unimaginative production, which boasts a talented cast and solid design work all around.
It’s hard to find a new take on Streetcar, one of the most oft-produced plays with a fairly straight-forward narrative and a setting — mid-century New Orleans — that only allows for so much directorial tweaking before it implodes. Simplicity abounds here. Scenic designer Reid Thompson follows Williams’s prescriptive stage directions to a T, and Hunter Kaczorowski provides faithful period costumes (as well as a few rather unflattering wigs for René Augesen’s Blanche, which you’ll need to force yourself to ignore).
I’m happy to report that Joe Manganiello is nowhere near as wooden as other film and TV actors who’ve taken a stab at stage work, but nor is he the firecracker you might hope for in the role — when he wails at Stella in the play’s most iconic scene, he’s more strained puppy than wounded lion. René Augesen is a fine Blanche, a faded flower carrying forth her Southern torch though all hope is lost.
The real highlight here, though, is Sarah Sokolovic, who takes the role of Stella and makes it truly her own. So often portrayed as a wounded door mat, Sokolovic’s Stella is an empowered woman who understands the failings of her own heart but loves knockabout Stanley in spite of his flaws — as well as her own. In the play’s final scenes, typically a tour de force for whichever actress is playing Blanche, I found my eyes gravitating toward Sokolovic, who, even in reacting to Blanche’s situation, manages to give this production a solid core.
There are missteps here to be sure — immediately after Stanley — spoiler alert — hits Stella, his card-playing buddies gallumph into the Kowalski’s bathroom like the Three Stooges, eliciting laughs from the audience. Director Mark Rucker also makes clumsy use of an upstage scrim as a means to feature too-literal flashbacks of Blanche’s past. These are unnecessary images; Williams’s text does the work for us, and nothing we can be shown can quite match the power of Blanche’s words.
If Mark Rucker’s serviceable production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Yale Repertory Theatre paints with somewhat broader brushstrokes than others in recent memory — including BAM’s production, starring the luminous Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois, a few years back — it’s damn near impossible to kill Tennessee Williams’s brilliant play, one of the best in the American canon.