The lady who lives for illusion has never felt more real. Playing that immortal bruised Southern lily Blanche DuBois, in Liv Ullmann’s heart-stopping production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Cate Blanchett soars spectacularly on the gossamer wings of fantasies that allow her character to live with herself. But you never doubt for a second that this brave, silly, contradictory and endlessly compelling woman is thoroughly and inescapably of this world.
Though it is the place she would least like to be most of the time, Blanche DuBois has been pulled gently and firmly down to earth by Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Ullmann, who guarantee that she stays there. Most interpretations I’ve seen of Blanche, Tennessee Williams’s greatest contribution to dramatic portraiture, ride the glistening surface of the character’s poetry, turning Blanche into a lyric, fading butterfly waiting for the net to descend.
What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer. This traveling production out of Sydney, Australia, which runs at the Harvey Theater through Dec. 20, features a very creditable adversary for its heroine in Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski, Blanche’s brutish brother-in-law. But the real struggle here is between Blanche and Blanche, which means that nobody wins.
Except, I might add, audiences, who are likely to find themselves identifying with disturbing closeness with a character who has often before seemed too exotic, too anachronistic, too fey to remind you of anyone you knew personally. Ms. Blanchett’s Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy.
Blanche DuBois may well be the great part for an actress in the American theater, and I have seen her portrayed by an assortment of formidable stars including Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Patricia Clarkson and Natasha Richardson. Yet there’s a see-sawing between strength and fragility in Blanche, and too often those who play her fall irrevocably onto one side or another.
Watching such portrayals, I always hear the voice of Vivien Leigh, the magnificent star of Elia Kazan’s 1951 movie, whispering Blanche’s lines along with the actress onstage. But with this “Streetcar,” the ghosts of Leigh — and, for that matter, of Marlon Brando, the original Stanley — remain in the wings. All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.”
This newly lucid production of a quintessentially American play comes to us via a Norwegian director, best known as an actress in the brooding Swedish films of Ingmar Bergman, and an Australian movie star, famous for impersonating historical figures like Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn. Blessed perhaps with an outsider’s distance on an American cultural monument, Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have, first of all, restored Blanche to the center of “Streetcar.”
Ever since Brando set Broadway abuzz in the original stage production in 1947, Stanley — the young, ruthless sexual animal who is married to Blanche’s sister, Stella — has usually been presented as Blanche’s equal, in terms of both thematic import and star presence. But Ms. Ullmann’s production makes it clear that in “Streetcar” it is Blanche who evolves, struggles and falls as heroes classically have.
We are achingly aware of just how difficult that struggle will be when we first see Blanche, blank-faced in creased linen, outside the New Orleans apartment building where she knows (and rues) that Stella (Robin McLeavy, in a lovely natural performance) lives. At that moment this pale, spiritless woman might belong to the walking dead. When she rises, she trembles perceptibly, and she speaks often of how raw her nerves are.
During the next three hours Blanche will summon every weapon left in her artillery to keep those nerves under control, to hold herself together, to function in a world where it is all too easy to be lost beyond salvation. At times you feel this Blanche, who was a schoolteacher after all, has the upper hand of a prim martinet. Placing those decorative feminine touches amid the squalor of the two-room apartment shared by Stanley and Stella, she is not merely frivolous; she is remaking the world in her image.
The genteel belle, the imperious English teacher, the hungry sensualist, the manipulative flirt: no matter which of these aspects is in ascendancy, Ms. Blanchett keeps them all before us, in a range of voices that seem to come from different compartments of the soul. The layers that she packs into single words are astonishing: “He-e-y,” for example, stretched into several syllables of longing as she speaks to a confounded young man, or “Eureka” as a cry not of discovery but defeat.
This Blanche is no passive victim. She knows herself painfully well, which makes her both funnier and sadder than most Blanches. Always, though, we are aware of her knowing that standing up and staying sane are merely provisional; she could topple over at any second. That delicate balance assumes its most wrenching form in her climactic face-off with Stanley, as Blanche tries to defy not only her predatory brother-in-law but also the drunkenness that keeps pulling her to the floor. Gravity is not on her side
The supporting cast members are excellent. Mr. Edgerton brings out the childlike side of Stanley, both its simple joyousness and thoughtlessness, and it has rarely been clearer that Stella’s husband has the winning strength of youth. Ms. Ullmann, as befits a veteran of Bergman films, arranges her men and women in fleeting tableaus that speak resonantly of sexual relationships. Two early moments between Stanley and Blanche — one in which he tries to button a dress, another in which they silently battle for control for the radio — say everything about “the date,” as Stanley puts it, that awaits them. But there are also tender pietas with Stella and Blanche, Stella and Stanley and Blanche and Mitch (Tim Richards), Stanley’s pal, who courts Blanche with the giddiness of a boy who has been allowed access to a carnival of wonders.
It has become the fashion with “Streetcar” productions to bring the whirl of New Orleans street life to the stage. This interpretation — meticulously designed by Ralph Myers (set), Tess Schofield (costumes) and Nick Schlieper (lighting) — confines us to the Kowalskis’ apartment, with glimpses through windows of other lives. Thus framed, these lives have the loneliness of figures in Edward Hopper paintings, whose cool, compassionate bleakness is deliberately evoked here.
No one, of course, is lonelier than Blanche, and her valiant battle against that condition lends this “Streetcar” a poignancy that, by the end, slides into full pathos. Our last vision of this Blanche is, like our first, of a ghost, if by ghost we mean someone defeated by life. But an image of warmth remains, like the afterglow of an extinguished flame, of the life poured into one woman’s last stand against a fate that is uniquely her own and somehow ours as well.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
By Tennessee Williams; directed by Liv Ullmann; sets by Ralph Myers; costumes by Tess Schofield; lighting by Nick Schlieper; music and sound by Paul Charlier. A Sydney Theater Company production, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, artistic directors; presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman of the board; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; (718) 636-4100. Through Dec. 20. Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: Cate Blanchett (Blanche Du- Bois), Michael Denkha (Steve Hubbell), Joel Edgerton (Stanley Kowalski), Elaine Hudson (a Strange Woman), Gertraud Ingeborg (a Mexican Woman), Morgan David Jones (a Young Collector), Russell Kiefel (a Strange Man), Jason Klarwein (Pablo Gonzales), Mandy McElhinney (Eunice Hubbell), Robin McLeavy (Stella Kowalski), Tim Richards (Mitch) and Sara Zwangobani (Rosetta