From the sound and light booth, I had a crow's nest view of the rehearsal stage. On a beam of light my eyes followed Blanche. She was in a posing slip, running her hands over her contours, seductively adjusting her lingerie. Mitch was watching her surreptitiously from stage left.
The spotlight dispersed into a rosy glow that bathed her bare shoulders, her bare legs and arms, and nestled softly in the vale between her breasts. Blanche turned around, feigning being startled by Mitch's gaze. As the cast focused on the action of Mitch's bumbling apology, the actress playing Blanche looked up and gave me the most sultry glance.
Backstage, after rehearsal, I went to the dressing room to hand out notes on the night's performance. Blanche turned to me, as she had turned toward Stanley in Act I.
In a slow warm voice like honey melting on the tongue, she said: "I'm going to ask a favor of you, lamb."
On cue I responded: "What could that be, I wonder?"
"My straps," she said, "the pins, now the pins."
I moved behind her to undo the tiny pins holding up the slip so that her breasts wouldn't be overly exposed on stage. I moved above the crook of her neck and inhaled her aroma. The dewiness of her skin was purling beneath the powder and makeup.
She turned around with a mischievous smile, as I tried to avoid looking at her nipples through the thin lace of her skimpy bra.
"That'll do ya," I said lightly.
"Hardly," she replied.
I dutifully busied myself with the rest of the cast. Her proximity in the dressing room consumed me.
Back in the theatre I used the vanity mirror on stage to make my own adjustments, smoothing down my black muscle shirt and running my comb through my slicked-back hair. I purposely left wide-wale tracks and a greaser's twirl in the front. I put on my black leather jacket, left the house manager to close the theatre, and joined the cast by the stage door exit.
"Lilith," as we had christened her, was posing by the door in one of Blanche's two-tone dresses, a pair of petite white gloves, and vintage rhinestone jewelry. She had told everyone during the audition that she had been playing Blanche in her mind from the age of fifteen. She said that she was coming out of retirement to do Blanche because she was precisely the right age to be able to convincingly deliver the line: "I was played out. You know what played out means? My youth was suddenly gone up the waterspout." She had just turned thirty-eight.
Lilith was a beautiful woman, thin and wiry, with a very feminine body. She had wild, curly, red-brown hair and a kinetic expressive energy. I had first seen her around town at a lesbian club. She was flirting uninhibitedly with her pride of admirers. I knew then that I wanted to get to know her. And by the end of our production, I had definitely gotten to know her as well as an activated snake-coiled aspect of myself.
The entire cast and crew were queer. Each of us had loved this play with passion bordering on obsession. Every one of us had a personal reason for entering the time warp zone of 1950 in America. To some extent we were all playing out the heterosexuality of our parents as seen through the eyes of a gay playwright who thought of himself as a "degenerate."
"Why did you retire?" I asked Lilith at our first tête-à-tête. I knew she had spent some years on the London stage, and that she had done work as well in New York with La Mama, etc.
"I had just ended a four-year affair with Magdalena, my first female lover. I needed time. But it was more involved than that," she said as she sipped her vodka.
Apparently she had overheard yet another male director snickering with a male production manager about the "girls in the stable."
Her eyes narrowed. "They are resentful of any passion that is not directed at them. And then they become sadistic and rape your sanity and abuse you for their own pleasure and power. I overheard the director calling me another aging ingénue!".
She dragged on her cigarette. "The final blow came when he told the producer," she took a gulp of vodka: "'Besides, she's pregnant. I hadn't even thought about her until she mentioned it.'
'Pregnant!' the producer shot back, 'But isn't she a...'"
"That's fucked," I blurted out.
"Those sleaze bags finally got to me." Lilith glared with resentment through her icy blue eyes. She regained composure, took another sip and said, "So I've been out of circulation for a while."
"To Blanche, then." I raised my glass.
"To the role of a lifetime," she toasted.
I would have loved to cast myself as Stanley Kowalski. Bob, the actor who was playing Stanley, looked the part. He was big, buffed and rugged. In real life he was a total queen, married to the slim and slick producer who was his husband. The role of Stanley was going to be a stretch for him.
Lilith continued the café conversation: "I feel that Blanche is like a gay resort, like Provincetown in the summer. She's a beautiful woman whom tourists use and abuse at the peak of her sexuality, and then leave abruptly, abandoning her in her autumn years."
I nodded and thought about what she had said.
As the rehearsals got under way, the first thing we did was switch the photo of Stanley on the dresser in the Kowalski apartment on the set. In its place we put a photo of a nude female bodybuilder.
The older director, Denise, who was mentoring and co-directing, insisted that we keep with the agenda of the original script. She warned me not to let Lilith take it astray. "We don't want her to play it too trampy. Blanche is not an old whore. Femme is not slut!"
Lilith began to fall in love with Blanche. She became immersed in Blanche's fetishes. She luxuriated and adorned herself with Blanche's accessories. She'd even taken the fake fur pieces home to play with. When she returned them, I couldn't help but notice how intimately they smelled like her.
Lilith had completely appropriated Blanche's personality. She began to speak using Blanche's metaphors. The accent was coming from Blanche's very lips. I delighted in the spectrum of colors and tones. Her sentences were like jeweled necklaces strung together from bits of Blanche's dialogue. The slight rasp of Lilith's own voice added to the poetry. She made it sound sexier and even more pleasurable, like a tongue licking backwards.
One evening in the dressing room, after rehearsals were under way, Lilith sailed in behind me. She whispered Blanche's line about her dead paramour into my ear: "There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness, a tenderness which wasn't like a man's." She sighed. I could hardly stop myself from swooning.
The costumes for the production were exquisite. The costume designer was a handsome young man from a Fortune 500 family, going incognito under an alias around town. He was also trying desperately to retreat back into the closet with a woman to whom he was engaged. At one point after a fitting, after Blanche had left waving her handkerchief, "Ta-ta, I'll leave you guys to decide," Darien confided in me that he loved designing Blanche's costumes because he had always dreamed of playing Blanche DuBois himself. His take on Blanche was that she was "good clothes, covering up a bad act." He also let me know what he thought of our leading lady.
"I wonder," he mused out loud, "who her next victim will be?"
Bob was having a hard time breaking through to his Stanley. His constant anxiety about not being macho enough was blocking his access. He and his stage wife Stella had been rehearsing privately night after night between formal rehearsals. It was causing severe strain in the relationship between Bob and his boyfriend. This tension was exactly what Bob needed to put an edge on his Stanley. And then, suddenly, it happened. As Bob became more butch, Stella turned away from Blanche and moved instinctively into her role and towards her leading man. The two of them were heating up together. Rumors started to fly.
Lilith had found the basis for Blanche more quickly, so she worked to speed up the process for Bob and the rest of the cast. "I direct on stage," she said, "Blanche needs company to play her roles."
The big problem lay with Mitch. The actor, Ronald, was afraid of women and completely intimidated by Lilith. The key scene between Mitch and Blanche was stuck in a tar pit.
Lilith had a brainstorm. "I'll play Mitch and show him how to do it," she said enthusiastically. So I called a private rehearsal for Mitch and Blanche.
As Mitch, Lilith pressed her advances on Ronald who was playing Blanche. He completely shrank into non-existence. Upon my suggestion, we tried it another way. Lilith still played Mitch, but I filled in as Blanche. I played her with a real longing and desire to be taken, but also with just the right amount of willpower to resist her for my own self-protection. I thought I had done a great Blanche. However, the little experiment failed horribly. To my surprise, Ronald became sexually aroused and angry with both of us. He left in a tiff.
He called up Denise to complain. When Denise came into rehearsal the next night, she was in a wicked way. She was annoyed with me and couldn't wait to lash into Lilith. She briskly handed me her notes on Blanche. She didn't like the way Lilith was playing Blanche as some over-the-hill seaside whore.
"Blanche is a woman adapting to desperate circumstances - to the human condition of poverty, fear, the need for love and solace," Denise lectured me. "The sexual bartering is an adaptation to circumstances. It's not a motivation," she barked.
I didn't like her tone, but I thought she was right. It was true that Blanche should not be played as some P-town queen ready to bed anyone for a couple of bills and a gram of coke. After all, she was a Southern belle who had faded and fallen on desperately bad times, circa 1947.
When Lilith walked through the door, Denise exploded and threw a hissy fit: "There are too many fucking Blanches and too many fucking directors," she screamed and stormed out of the theatre. Lilith screamed after her: "You arrested ingénue!"
I cancelled the rehearsal. Everyone was stressed and pissed off. Lilith asked me up to her apartment.
Over a bottle of bourbon and a reheated pork chop, Lilith was processing, "Compared to Mitch, Stanley is unidimensional. Stanley never connects, never touches the real Blanche and her complications. We need to get the Mitch scene right. It's key. Stanley is easy. But I can't do my Blanche without Mitch."
"I agree on that," I nodded, "but how?"
"A woman alone in the world, lonely and destitute and past her prime, what does she have but the illusion of her former innocence and sexuality to barter?" Lilith asked me.
Her coy look and the sound of what she said was making me nervous. She moved closer, "Marry me, Mitch."
I shot back the bourbon. Marriage was the furthest thing from my mind as I followed her down the hall to her bedroom.
I never wanted her complications. I wanted champagne and flowers. What I loved about my fling with Lilith was how we played our make-believe roles dressed up as Blanche and Stanley as we flaunted our act around town. It went beyond lesbian subversion. We completely flipped that script. But beneath the flippancy there was a backstage, darker version. It became a saga of betrayal, of unfulfilled expectations, and of cruelties to the heart - the flip side of Tennessee Williams as well.
By the time the production got into the final dress rehearsals, Lilith had sexually agitated every member of the cast and crew. She had pushed every button and pulled every string. And somehow it worked for the twisted energy of the play. The acting was magmatic and the stage erupted into a hotbed of anger, frustrated passion, and insanity.
As opening night approached, the pulse of the play took over. Every rehearsal became more realized. The actors channeled their pent-up passion through the script. I watched with pleasure as they played with quick and agile flicks of mood and emotion. Even Ronald found a sense of humor in his tormented dealings with Lilith.
The techies were going full boogie with the timing of all the sound and lighting cues. Real glasses, real dishes, and real furniture were coming in to replace the rehearsal props. And finally the box of breakaway bottles arrived, so that Blanche could smash one in front of Stanley's face without actually sending shards of glass into his eyes.
We had a hit! Lilith was the consummate actress, and she did Blanche like none other. She was so perilously close to Blanche's vulnerability, insanity, sexual hunger, and queeniness that by the end of the production, I wasn't sure that Blanche would ever leave Lilith's body.
Months later, after the play had ended, I heard that Lilith was still playing Blanche offstage. She was claiming that she hated Tennessee Williams for being a sadist toward Blanche. She hated him for the ending. She said that she knew Blanche better than Tennessee Williams did. Since he was never an actor, he could never feel Blanche or live Blanche. Blanche was real for Lilith, whereas for Tennessee, Blanche was just a sketch.
"If it had been done right," the clothing designer told me after our final performance, "I would have auditioned for Blanche."
"And I would have been Stanley," I answered.
"I could have dropped eight or nine pounds and I would have been perfect," he said.
"I could have buffed up my abs and pecs, bound my breasts, and I would have been perfect," I responded.
Lilith came into the dressing room to collect her things and snapped, "It's not the roles you want to play dress-up in; it's the roles you most fear which are the roles worth playing."