A Streetcar Named Desire @ BAM Harvey Theatre, New York

cast list
Cate Blanchett, Michael Denkha, Joel Edgerton, Elaine Hudson, Gertraud Ingeborg, Alan John, Morgan David Jones, Russell Kiefel, Jason Klarwein, Mandy McElhinney, Robin McLeavy, Tim Richards, Sara Zwangobani

directed by
Liv Ullman
Blanche DuBois, the troubled heroine of Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire, is a bad actress. As we observe her arrival at her sister Stella’s house one morning, armed with her hefty trunk and a hard-luck story, it’s plain to see that innocent bystanders are easily taken in by her talkative charm and Southern high-class airs. It’s also plain to see that Blanche, all surface and no depth, though she feels deeply about a great many things, wears an unsteady mask, which stands fated to fall.

Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Streetcar, directed by legendary Norwegian film actress Liv Ullman, is now playing at BAM following its Australian premiere, proving that a great actress like Cate Blanchett, who inhabits the role of Blanche, can in fact portray frighteningly surface-level characters with explosive and memorable results.
Adorned with few frills, the production design of this production (savvy sets are by Ralph Myers) supports Williams’s claustrophobic vision of the Kowalski household, comprised of Stella and her husband Stanley, who live in a two-room apartment in New Orleans. Blanche arrives in New Orleans on the heals of a great loss. Belle Reve, the DuBois family home, is gone, though Stella’s much too polite to ask what happened outright.

As common-as-dirt Stanley begins to inquire about Blanche’s secrets, Blanche grow increasingly attached to one of Stanley’s poker buddies, Mitch. Blanche starts to settle in to her new life, but as soon as she starts to get comfortable, revelations about her past begin to challenge her precarious relationship with Mitch.

Williams’s plays are some of the hardest for modern-day actors to tackle. Though several have entered the canon of great American plays, his plays are full of heightened, dramatic dialogue, some of it verging on melodrama. Under Ullman’s clear-headed direction, the poetic quality of Streetcar‘s dialogue is preserved and the larger-than-life emotions of its characters honestly rendered.

Blanchett’s Blanche, nervy and self-possessed, cracks up over time as Joel Edgerton’s Stanley, all raw nerve-endings, begins to hunt down the truth about her past. Blanchett’s Blanche is a lady of grace; observing her calculated hand movements is an excerise in acting craft. By the end of the play, she’s crawling on her hands and knees, clinging to the last of her wits.

Robin McLeavy as Stella turns in a similarly impressive performance as Blanche’s clear-headed sister, outwardly the epitome of domestic bliss. Tim Richards as Mitch shares several impressive scenes with Blanchett as well, managing to turn a rather passive role into a memorable one.

There are several minor grievances to be found with this production. The final line of the play, signaling the beginning of yet another typical poker game after Blanche’s tragic exit, has been excised in favor of a somewhat less satisfying final beat. And Blanche, as she’s led out of the Kowalski home, somehow forgets to put on anything more presentable than her slip (even at her most crazed, Blanche would still look presentable).

Still, these quibbles are minor compared to the strengths of the production as a whole. This Streetcar, for those who are able to snag any remaining open seats, is not to be missed by those like myself who have always depended on the greatness of poised stage actresses.

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