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It’s no accident that the hero of Angels quotes Blanche DuBois from his hospital bed: Like Prior Walter, the woman at the center of A Streetcar Named Desire is a resilient creature haunted by death and gasping hungrily for “more life,” but her crazy-tragic line about the kindness of strangers is such a triumph of camp-culture iconography that even straight boys have learned to deliver it with an appropriately knowing air. All the more difficult, then, for the actress who’s called on to deliver those memorable words in earnest, at the end of a scene that, when stars align, ought still to be as shattering as Prior’s farewell.
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Stars have aligned at least a little in Liv Ullmann’s staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, which comes to the Kennedy Center from Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company, with a luminous Cate Blanchett in the lead. It’s not a perfect reading of this famously difficult play, but it’s one of the clearest I’ve seen, stripped down to the essentials of a damaged but determined Blanche and a cruelly unforgiving world. I’m not prepared to go as far as the Washington Post, which lets its enthusiasm for Blanchett’s star turn blind to such trifling oversights as a largely unconvincing Mitch. But neither am I prepared to dismiss the production the way one colleague did, as an ill-calibrated outsiders’ attempt at scaling one of the peaks of the American canon. (For more on that, please note our debate on City Paper‘s Arts Desk blog.)
If you admired Patricia Clarkson’s languidly graceful Blanche a few years back, you probably won’t be moved by Blanchett’s version, whose trembling hands and nervous half-starts may strike you as unsubtle semaphore. Note that it’s a considered choice, though: This Blanche is shaky only when she’s faking things, when she’s struggling to keep her grip on that moonlight-and-magnolias illusion she keeps trying to sell. When she’s left with no alternative but the truth, the hands fall still and the high, lilting voice slopes down into huskier territory, and Blanchett allows a glimpse of an earthy, vital Blanche, a strong and consciously sensual woman who’d have cut a formidable figure if she’d been born 25 years later or a couple of latitudes north.
Strong and consciously sensual is certainly how you’d describe this production’s Stanley, played by Joel Edgerton not as a cluelessly coarse antipode for Blanche but as her no-illusions opposite number, a man whose physical appetites aren’t far removed from hers but who’s not about to pretend, like Blanche, that they don’t exist. He’s not educated, but he’s nobody’s fool, and if he can’t escape being the beast Blanche describes, he’s at least got an animal’s cunning to help him see through her paper-lantern lies.
Once the lantern’s down and the titans have clashed—the famous rape is more a drunken collision here—Ullmann bucks tradition and pushes for more drama still, staging Blanche’s last moments in the Kowalski apartment as if this once-poised creature were a cornered rabbit panicking at the smell of an inquisitive fox. It’s a startling choice, but for a play that’s at least partly about the demise of an old aesthetic and the rise of a crude replacement, it’s not an outrageous one. And as the final struggles fade and the doctor leads Williams’ empty-husked heroine away, one last twist suggests a Blanche for whom more life, suddenly and movingly, holds little further appeal.