Blanchett fires 'Streetcar's' eternal combustion engine

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 2009

If Cate Blanchett's nerve-shattering turn as Blanche DuBois doesn't knock the wind out of you, then there is nothing on a stage that can blow you away. What Blanchett achieves in the Sydney Theatre Company's revelatory revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" amounts to a truly great portrayal -- certainly the most heartbreaking Blanche I've ever experienced.

It's a shame that the 24-performance run in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, its U.S. premiere, is completely sold out. This is the kind of evening you want to urge people to see, to remind them of theater's illuminating range, its ability to force you out of your resistant natural skepticism, to assess, reflect and feel.

I confess that in the final scene of the 3-hour 15-minute production -- when Blanchett's spectral Blanche is stripped so entirely of the sustaining illusions of life that she looks as if all her blood's been drained away -- I lost it. In the harrowing moment before the asylum doctors lead Blanche away, she makes a frantic last break for it, running and hiding under the bed in Stella and Stanley's room. Watching as Blanchett at last limply submits (over the wrenching sobs of erstwhile beau Mitch), you grasp fully the inevitability of Blanche's demise: She has been lost since a day long ago in her native Mississippi, where the horrific end to an intense, impossible love spurred her to a self-induced doom.

The Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, renowned for her collaborations with the director (and father of her child) Ingmar Bergman on some of his most important films, was recruited to direct Tennessee Williams's seminal tragedy for its debut in Sydney in September. As she finds in the piece both poetry and unexpected humor, Ullmann proves a formidable hire. Her stark approach -- Stella's dingy apartment, with its bare light bulbs and chipped tiles, has rarely appeared so cramped and shabby -- departs from some other productions of "Streetcar" in their attempts to embroider the play with the intoxicating colors of New Orleans in the 1940s.

Apart from the city

Ullmann and set designer Ralph Myers see the tarnished glamour as window dressing. They draw the curtains on the vibrant city outside the apartment: The only exterior is the fire escape to the flat of the hot-blooded couple above, who are often shown only through the window shade, in silhouette. Even with the muffled notes of the blues that waft in from the wings, this could be a kitchen-sink drama in a tattered neighborhood not unlike Ralph Kramden's.

But by no means is it a gray slice of domestic life. The production turns us into bomb-sniffers, waiting as it meticulously builds to the explosion of Stanley's attack on Blanche, which is rendered here smartly as a clumsy, drunken ravishment, one in which Blanche is drunker than Stanley. Granted, an audience is not entirely sure after the initial encounters of Blanche and Joel Edgerton's strapping Stanley Kowalski that the evening will satisfyingly combust; it takes time for Edgerton's portrayal to develop a rhythm to compete with the always watchable Blanchett's. But it does eventually assert itself grandly, in the vengeful power of a conscience-less Stanley, incensed at Blanche's audacious self-dramatizing and utterly indifferent to her pain.

The telegraphing of those wounds so transparently from the get-go might in a less skillful performance feel like overkill. Here, it adds to the sense of a woman whose self-destructive path is already laid out. When we meet Blanche, washed up on the doorstep of her younger sister Stella (the appealing Robin McLeavy), her hands quiver with anxiety -- or it the d.t.'s? She doesn't merely reach for a bottle of the Kowalskis' booze with those shaky hands, she lunges for it with her eyes.

That she's schooled in the art of deception is also made abundantly clear: After sneaking a drink, she thinks to wipe down the glass, as if a tiny indiscretion would loose an unraveling of the stories of the far more devastating skeletons in her closet.

Some of the production's obsessive attention to Blanche does push other performances to the sidelines; McLeavy's Stella is consigned resolutely -- and aptly -- to Blanche's shadow. (Stella's crack about how catering to Blanche makes her feel like she did at home rings particularly true.) Fortunately, Blanche DuBois is meant to exist in an eternal follow spot, and you get to see here how well that idea serves the plot. For Blanche's effort to muscle Stanley out of the way itself proves to be a fatal gambit.

Overcoming a towering shadow

It's a measure of the sensual lock Marlon Brando still has on the role of Stanley that 50-plus years after the film version, his image is still the one fixed in the mind. Every actor chosen for a revival has to contend with him, and Edgerton manages far better than most. He's broad and muscular, but Blanchett is tall, and so it's not a performance of sheer physical dominance. He is not the most primitive Stanley, either, not quite the animal whom Blanche describes; Edgerton's frequent, high-pitched laugh hints at a mischievous, nervous energy. And he finds a solid center to the character in Stanley's boiling resentment of Blanche's superior attitude, and her challenge to his control over Stella.

Aggression, more than desire, seems to inform their relationship. Early on, a nifty moment of sexual tension arises, as Blanchett, astride a bedroom night table, challengingly blocks Edgerton's way to a radio. As if to underline his rage at being unable to get around Blanche, Stanley later throws the radio out the window. And when at last he overpowers her in the famous rape scene, you acutely feel the impact of this Stanley's hatred.

Technically, the Australian company fares pretty well with the cadences of the Deep South, even if a few of the accents fade in and out a bit. Tess Schofield's costumes, however, are consistently redolent of faded elegance. In particular, the outlandish floor-length white dress Blanche wears for the birthday party that fizzles after Tim Richards's Mitch fails to show, helps to accentuate the world of unreal expectations to which Blanche still clings.

It is in the pitiable final scene, when Blanche cannot muster the strength to put on a dress at all, that Blanchett is at her most astonishing peak. Unmasked, her Blanche stumbles across the stage, exhausted, vanquished, finished.

A Streetcar Named Desire

by Tennessee Williams. Lighting, Nick Schlieper; composer and sound design, Paul Charlier; vocal coach, Charmian Gradwell. With Michael Denkha, Mandy McElhinney, Jason Klarwein, Sara Zwangobani, Morgan David Jones.

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