New Streetcar Puts Brando’s Ghost to Rest

12/04/2009 5:01 PM |

Quick—who played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire? Any film or stage versions, it doesn't matter. If you don't know, if the only name of an actor who has appeared in Tennessee Williams' American classic that you can summon is Marlon Brando, it's understandable: the future Godfather made his name as Stanley Kowalski, changed the face of American acting while he was at it, and made poor Blanche's brother-in-law the play's most prominent figure, at least in the popular imagination. The actor's domineering turn came to overshadow the work. But in its purest form—words on a page—Streetcar belongs to Blanche. And Cate Blanchett, in an extraordinary performance in Liv Ullman's outstanding production at BAM (through December 20), reclaims Williams' text for her.

In Elia Kazan's 1951 film adaptation—the only Streetcar many of us have seen outside of high school auditoriums—Vivian Leigh, who'd become a Technicolor icon as Scarlett O'Hara twelve years earlier, plays Blanche, and is mostly insufferable in her affected, wide-eyed airiness, the zonked-out Olivierianisms at odds with the persistent naturalism of the gum-chewing Adlerites and Strasbergians around her. In theory, this could work: Blanche is alienated from her sister, brother-in-law and their Orleanian friends and neighbors, and a dissimilar acting style helps underline that disconnect. In practice, however, it's annoying. Blanchett's Blanche, in contrast, is on the same plane as the other characters—her flights of fancy aren't the ravings of a mesmerized mad woman, but the desperate attempts of a broken and miserable woman to cling to some form of dignity. This Blanche knows she's full of shit; she ain't crazy, just pathetic, and her inexorable path toward rape and lunacy is all the more harrowing for it.

Though she isn't the first to speak, Blanchett is the first actor we see when the stage brightens, hunkered near the stage-left wing, the manicured glow of her white traveling clothes at odds with the dilapidation her crouch exudes. This conflict is at the root of her character: between the prim-and-proper and the torn-down, between the antebellum belle she would like to be and the aged hussy she has become. Blanchett plays this conflict as a moment-to-moment struggle, three emotionally exhausting hours, for us and surely for the actress, of switching between put-on confidence (a haughtiness, really, from which Blanchett wrings quite a few laughs) and raw exposure, a manically energetic see-saw from affected punctilio to anger to tears, all in the course of single passages of dialogue. Even Blanchett's voice toggles between a natural low-pitch and the wispy tone of phony virtue.

It is, of course, Stanley who most often provokes the ruptures to her composure; Blanche capably commands most of the social situations in which she finds herself, easily dominating her sister Stella (Robin McLeavy, soldiering superbly through a thankless role) and the others around her—watch the way Blanchett makes the paperboy lean down into her for that soft and sweet kiss on the mouth—but The Excitable Polack proves her undoing. The ghost of Brando looms over the role, but Joel Edgerton wriggles free of it. (For the most part, anyway: Edgerton's thickly muscular frame and slurred speech—he drops the hard consonants from the ends of every word and phrase except "Napoleonic Code"—feel like a part of the character, rather than atavistic traces of Brando's interpretation. They evoke the superstar nonetheless.) The famous scene in which Kowalski wails for his wife ("Stell-uhhhhhh!") has become a much-parodied clich√© and yet, as Edgerton lay crumpled on the stage, folded in on himself, McLeavy wafting down the stairs from the apartment above like a leaf falling from the top of a tree, I cried. On paper, Stanley is among the most contemptible characters of the American theater. But Edgerton succeeds in doing what any Stanley must: he makes him vulnerable, quasi-sympathetic, sneaking in tender gestures to contrast the gruff, drunken exterior, making us understand what Blanche does not: why Stella would make love to him moments after he gave her an Irish kiss.

At its best, as in this production, Streetcar is an extraordinary portrait of a woman unraveling at the hands of a brutal, and brutally sexual, man; some have read it as a homosexual fantasy of ravishment (Blanche as the playwright's alter-ego), but less provocatively, and less condescendingly, we can see the play as an allegory for a transformational South. Blanchett and Ullman remind us that this is Blanche's play, but who is Blanche, beyond a widow teetering into hysteria? Like other Williams works, the central female character here is torn in two pernicious directions: toward the past and future, the old and new, the sub-Mason-Dixon traditions and the immigrants and indecency of the post-war world. That either choice represents her doom reveals the cynicism at the heart of this tragic masterwork. Ullman, once Ingmar Bergman's muse, exposes the play's raw power, which decades of over-familiarity and cultural saturation have obscured. Streetcar is essential, top-notch theater. And, for the first time in a long time, now you can see why. And that it has nothing to do with Brando.

(photo credit: Lisa Tomasetti)