Poker night. Stanley and the boys sit around the kitchen table, swilling whiskey and playing cards. Mitch complains that he has a sick mother at home, and hides in the bathroom for awhile.
Blanche and Stella come home, too early. They are not welcome around the poker game. Mitch comes out of the bathroom and is immediately taken with Blanche, who does not fail to notice him either. The game continues and the girls gossip and listen to the radio, but Stanley is upset at the noise and makes them turn off the radio.
Mitch deals out of the hand and goes to talk to Blanche. He offers her a cigarette from a silver case with an inscription from a dead girl to whom Mitch was once attached. Blanche asks Mitch to help her hang a paper lantern, to cover the naked light bulb. They talk about her former students, and how she enjoyed watching their youthful discovery of love even if it meant that they didn't have much interest in her English curriculum.
Blanche puts the radio back on and begins to dance. Stanley storms into the bedroom and grabs the radio, throwing it out the window. Stella hollers at him, and he hits her. The men pull Stanley away to calm him down. Stella cries that she wants to leave, and Blanche leads her upstairs to Eunice's apartment.
Stanley comes to his senses and realizes that Stella is gone. He goes outside and begins bellowing his wife's name: Stell-ahhhh! Eunice comes out and tells Stanley to hush, but he continues to holler. After a moment, Stella emerges and embraces her husband. He lifts her up and carries her back into their flat.
Blanche emerges, fearful, and realizes that Stella has gone back to Stanley. She is confused and scared. Mitch appears again and she bottles up her interest in her sister's behavior to continue flirting with Mitch.
"Poker shouldn't be played in a house with women." Mitch is adamant in his conviction that the conflict that erupts in the Kowalski household is due to the flammable combination of poker and women. It's not the card playing per se, however, that makes the situation volatile. Stanley sees himself as a man's man, with all the whiskey and cussing and misogyny he feels that implies. Poker night is a testosterone-fueled occasion, and spirits are running high and flowing fast. When the women come home, Stanley has been losing money, and needs to save face with his buddies. The combination of liquor, the late hour, the bad poker hands, and Stanley's increasing annoyance at his sister-in-law's presence all lead to him finally striking his wife.
But it is clear that this isn't the first time, nor is it the last. "It makes me so mad when he does that in front of people," Stella says, when Stanley smacks her the first time. This sentence is loaded – it doesn’t make her mad that he smacks her, but that he smacks her in public. They can do what they want when they're alone, but as long as Blanche is around they will not be alone.
The reality/romantic dichotomy is further explored in this scene as Blanche spins a gossamer web for Mitch in the diffuse lantern light. She masks her age in shadow, and her own darkness in light banter. She even translates her name for Mitch as "white woods, like an orchard in spring," despite the fact that she is well past her springtime. (Anglicized, Blanche's surname is DuBoys – which she does, all too well)
Mitch is drawn to Blanche, and she to him, but for different reasons. Mitch is enraptured by Blanche's many tricks and tools of coquettish seduction, and desperate Blanche latches on to the stable and supportive idea of a husband. They share a familiarity with death - Blanche watched the older generation of her family die, and Mitch lost the girl who gave him the cigarette lighter. But Blanche's loss is more profound, more crippling, and the darkness in her quickly threatens to overwhelm the simplicity of Mitch.
The famous image from this scene – and indeed, the most famous image in the Williams canon – is Stanley Kowalski, symbol of virility and manhood, kneeling exposed and half-naked on the pavement as he desperately cries his wife's name. It is a difficult scene, in performance. Aside from avoiding the specter of Marlon Brando, the actor must also avoid the maudlin in making Stanley's desperation both sexy and terrifying. Stanley and Stella's reunion is without words – their connection is silent, physical. Stanley must likewise be a physical, commanding, dominating force in this scene, a center of gravity to attract Stella and pull her towards him, pull her down the stairs and quite literally down to his level.
To make this scene effective, the audience must be feeling exactly the same things as Blanche: a mixture of fear and curiosity. For Blanche, desire is something to be dressed up in lace and perfume and hidden from sight – it certainly exists in her life, as one of the driving forces that brought her downfall, but never as baldly and bawdily as with her sister and her brother-in-law. The only man Blanche has ever loved was her husband, but due to incompatible sexualities there could not have been any passion – Blanche has never experienced this lustful love, but only calculated lust and chaste love. It is something foreign to her, something animal, and she fears it – but is drawn to it just the same. It is an incredibly complex moment of drama, rightfully iconic.