There’s a huge star at the center of the Sydney Theatre Company’s much-hyped, Liv Ullman-directed, wholly satisfying new staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, which sold out its Kennedy Center run before the curtain rose on the first preview. I speak, of course, of the dramatist Tennessee Williams.
That’s no slight on Cate Blanchett, who fronts, fights, twirls and finally, crawls her way through a towering, plaintive gut-punch of a performance as Blanche DuBois, the cracked Southern belle at the center of Williams’s oft-revived 1947 Pulitzer-winning war of wills. (She’s also Sydney Theatre’s co-artistic director, with her husband.) Though famous for film roles from Queen Elizabeth to Katherine Hepburn to Bob Dylan, the 40-year-old Blanchett’s almost-as-eclectic stage resume reaches back to the early 90s. Here she proves again that the authority and vulnerability she intimates onscreen is no camera trick. You’d hike for 10 hours of screen time through a hostile landscape of orcs and dragons to toss a magical ring into a volcano if she told you to.
Still, though: The play’s the thing. And Streetcar is part of the cultural atmosphere. People who never see theater can quote it. The portrayal of Blanche most remembered is either Vivien Leigh’s, from the 1951 movie, or Marge Simpson’s. Chiseling out a fully committed, persuasive version of a character and a play as referenced and parodied as this can’t be easy. It’s an irritating distraction when the house applauds Blanchett’s mere arrival on stage, but she doesn’t take long to earn the approbation she’s advanced.
Nor is it faint praise to say that even the lesser aspects of this production simply work. Joel Edgerton is almost eerily Marlon Brando-like as Stanley Kowalski, the virile, volatile husband of Blanche’s sister, Stellaaaaaaaaaaaaa! He’s never unconvincing, though this is a role where the director might have pushed for something farther afield of Brando’s iconic take in the original Broadway production and film, both directed by McCarthy-era name-namer Elia Kazan.
Indeed, recruiting Ullman — the Norwegian star of nine of Ingmar Bergman’s psychodramas before she became a filmmaker herself — to steer this ship would seem to portend a cooler, more self-aware, more European reading of this most American of dramas. For most of the evening, it doesn’t. Despite some audacious tinkering at the end, when those sober-faced strangers arrive to show Blanche a final kindness, this is the Streetcar you remember — even if you’ve never seen it before. That turns out to be a glorious thing.
Robin McLeavy deserves singling out for her sturdy, sensitive performance as Stella. Less flashy a role than that of Blanche or Stanley, it’s equally critical to Williams’ tragic design. It could be a thankless part, but McLeavy is strong and memorable.
Blanche, in Williams’ most elegant expression of her tragedy, won’t let Stanley’s pal Harold (Tim Richards), who’s fallen hard for her, see her in the light. She;s afraid he’ll see she’s been fibbing about her age, and that’s not the half of it. But Blanchett shows us something remarkable when the lights go down, instantly casting off Blanche’s weary posture to glide through the scene changes with a dancer’s grace. In those brief moments of shadow, we see Blanche as she wants desperately to see herself: Young and innocent, free of pain or a past or the humbling appetites of her tired body.
A Streetcar Named Desire (about three hours, including one intermission) is at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through Nov. 21st. The run is, as we say, sold out, but maybe you know a guy who knows a guy.