Stage Door Review

A Streetcar Named Desire

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

✭✭

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Weyni Mengesha

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

September 27-October 27, 2019

Blanche: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”

Soulpepper last produced A Streetcar Named Desire in 1999 starring Fiona Reid as Blanche and directed by Diana Leblanc. Overall Soulpepper’s present production may not quite match its 1999 production, but Amy Rutherford’s extraordinarily powerful performance as Blanche is not to be missed and Weyni Mengesha’s direction takes an exciting new approach to this Tennessee Williams classic. 

Streetcar (1947), like Williams’s most produced play The Glass Menagerie (1945), focusses on a former Southern belle who cannot acclimatize herself to the harsh realities around her once she is cast out of the pampered life she once led. Blanche DuBois (Rutherford) has to leave her small town of Laurel, Mississippi, after creditors have repossessed the family home of Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”, just one of the play’s many symbolic names). Having no money and nowhere else to go, she decides to stay with her younger sister Stella (Leah Doz) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (Mac Fyfe), who live in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche is shocked to find that Stella lives in a two-room apartment in a tenement and that her husband is a brute. The fact that Stella is pregnant means that Blanche’s stay will be limited until the birth of the baby. 

Quickly Blanche sees that all her hopes depend on Mitch (Gregory Prest), a meek man with an ailing mother who is the only one of Stanley’s poker partners who has manners and is kind to her. Stanley, however, who has been suspicious of Blanche and her ladylike airs from the start, investigates her life in Laurel and why, though a teacher, she left the school term before it was over. His discoveries bring about the complete collapse of Blanche’s world. 

Since the play concerns the unviability of Blanche’s dreams and fragile personality amid the harsh reality of life, Lorenzo Savoini has created a set unlike any you may have seen for a Tennessee William’s play before. The set is deliberately non-realistic. When you enter the auditorium all you see is the outline of the the Kowalski’s apartment defined by two free-standing doors and the curtain rod used for the curtain that separates the Kowalski’s bedroom from the the kitchen/dining room. Surrounding the apartment at a good distance on three sides are fortress-like walls made of corrugated metal that stop about two feet from the floor to allow room for the powerful floor lamps of Kimberley Purtell’s lighting design. 

Just when the light first go up, the cast push in all the furnishings of the Kowalski apartment that give it a semblance of realism even though that realism has already been undermined by showing the “apartment” to us first as a playing area. Blanche may be the the character who is most consciously playing a role, but the way Mengesha has begun the play highlights that all the characters, even Stanley, are playing roles in relation to each other. I must admit I had thought Mengesha was going to present the play in an even more radical way without the use of any properties rather as in Ivo van Hove’s minimalist production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic in 2014.

Rachel Forbes’s costume design seems to have pushed the time period up from 1947 when the play premiered into the 1950s. Stanley has a penchant for Hawaiian shirts and the women’s dresses have pinched waists and they wear smallish cocktail hats. The one glaring anachronism is the wheeled suitcase that Forbes gives Blanche — they weren’t invented until 1970.

The main flaw of the production is that Mengesha allows Blanche to be the only performer sporting a deep Southern accent. This accent certainly sets Blanche apart from the other characters but it should be Blanche’s antiquated manners and polysyllabic speech that make her seem so different not her accent. One would expect Blanche’s sister Stella or the men who play cards with Stanley to have accents as strong as Blanche’s, but not here. Mengesha uses live music well to create a New Orleans atmosphere. She should also use the the characters’ accents which more often than not dictate the rhythm of Williams’s characters’ speech.

As Blanche, Amy Rutherford gives an outstanding performance. It is, in fact, the greatest performance she has ever given. Rutherford allows Blanche’s ladylike affectations to be humorous given her squalid surroundings, but she also allows them to be a disturbing prelude to her gradual mental alienation from everything around her. Though Rutherford’s Blanche portrays herself as fragile, we know that she is feverishly struggling to survive. At the same time Rutherford lets us know almost from the first moment that Blanche arrives at Stella’s dirty screen door that a premonition of impending doom has taken over her mind that only copious drinking can temporarily numb. The way Rutherford delivers Blanche’s speech about the death of her first husband is absolutely riveting, but then her character commands the stage whenever she appears.

Ideally, Stanley should appear as the exact opposite of Blanche – a realist versus a fantasist, crude versus refined – but Mac Fyfe does not always achieve this. Physically, he clearly dominates Rutherford’s Blanche. Yet, despite the violent actions his character performs, Fyfe simply sounds too intelligent to be playing a man repeatedly called “animalistic” and “bestial”. Fyfe is never able to make the word “ain’t” sound natural in Stanley’s mouth. Fyfe’s movements also are much more pantherine than simian. In many ways the subtle characteristics that made Fyfe such a superb Dionysus in Euripides’ Bakkhai at Stratford in 2017, are the very elements that prevent his Stanley from being the menacing presence he ought to be. Stanley is devoid of subtlety.

Leah Doz plays Stella as so unlike Blanche that she seems more like Blanche’s best friend rather than her sister. We should see that the way Stella idolizes Stanley shows the same willful blindness to reality that Blanche has. Doz makes Stella the more practical of the two sisters but she should show at least as much facial animation as Rutherford does as Blanche to underscore their familial relationship. 

As Mitch, Gregory Prest is cast as the innocent chump yet again, but he plays this kind of role well. He shows us how a young man surrounded by dying at home is easily attracted to a woman like Blanche who so obviously flirts with him. Mitch’s basic decency and belief in good manners already set him apart from his poker mates who make fun of him, so it is fully believable that he should fall for a woman like Blanche who is also ridiculed for her pronounced refinement. When Mitch believes Blanche has deceived him, Prest emphasizes the sadness in Mitch as much as the anger.

In other roles Akosua Amo-Adem and Lindsay Owen Pierre as Steve and Eunice Hubbell make a fine parallel to Stella and Stanley Kowalski since they, too, can have a fierce, all-out row and yet make up hours later.

If Weyni Mengesha is not so particular about the characters’ accents, she assuredly is about the precise coordination of text, lighting and sound. The latter change constantly to reflect in an expressionistic fashion the alterations in mood in the Kowalski apartment. The way Mengesha stages Stanley’s climactic insult to Blanche is brilliant in the way it breaks the artifice of the set to reflect the final shattering of Blanche’s illusions. Amy Rutherford’s performance and Mengesha’s production are ones you will long remember whenever you recall what many consider Tennessee William’s greatest play.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Amy Rutherford as Blanche and Mac Fyfe as Stanley; Amy Rutherford as Blanche, Sebastian Marziali as Pablo, Lindsay Owen-Pierre as Steve, Leah Doz as Stella and Mac Fyfe as Stanley; Mac Fyfe as Stanley and Leah Doz as Stella. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca.