Amy Rutherford’s radiant portrait of Blanche DuBois is the highlight of Soulpepper’s ambitious but uneven production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Soulpepper Theatre/A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams, directed by Weyni Mengesha, Young Centre for the Arts, Sept. 21 to Oct. 27. Tickets available at Soulpepper.ca.
Soulpepper’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is ambitious, over-busy, but oft-times compelling. Director Weyni Mengesha has pulled out all the stops in terms of bells and whistles, but, in the long run, comes up short. Nonetheless, the show is still worth a visit because this A Streetcar Named Desire does have a lot going for it, primarily, Amy Rutherford’s radiant portrait of Blanche DuBois.
Blanche DuBois is one of the most famous heroines in American literature. She arrives in New Orleans at the home of her married sister Stella (Leah Doz) on a wave of lies. Her fragile hold on life is broken by the personality conflict she has with her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Mac Fyfe).
Aristocratic Mississippi belle Blanche cannot withstand the onslaught of Stanley’s brute force of nature. He is a working class man of the mean streets whom Blanche sees as vulgar and common, and she cannot understand what draws her sister to Stanley, never recognizing that Stella is in thrall with his animal magnetism and sexual attraction. Blanche forms a relationship with Stanley’s army buddy Mitch (Gregory Prest), but he rejects her when he finds out about her sordid past. Blanche has been sliding into mental illness ever since the suicide of her young homosexual husband, and it is Stanley’s violent treatment of her that sends her into insanity.
My rule of thumb for measuring Blanche is just how much does she make me cringe, and Rutherford is very cringeworthy. From the very moment Blanche slips into her delicate, coy, flirtatious, little-ol’-me, Southern belle stereotype, she is doomed. The more embarrassed I am for Blanche, the better the actress is, and Rutherford, with her prancing, preening and teasing sugary sweetness nails the role.
Mitch may fall for it, but Stanley sees right through her. Rutherford also highlights Blanche’s intelligence, and she really brings to light the character’s clever observations, which is certainly a fresh interpretation. Watching Rutherford spin Blanche’s web of delusions is like watching a train wreck. Every one of her sly, condescending put-downs of Stanley is another car off the rails. No one else in the cast comes up to Rutherford’s mesmerizing performance level.
Fyfe as Stanley seems to be acting in fits and starts. He rises to the occasion when he needs to, like his scary explosive, violent drunken outburst where he strikes Stella, but in between, Fyfe is treading water. There is no consistency. He does manage to inject sarcasm into his conversations with Blanche, but real menace and tension are missing. Fyfe looks the role physically, but needs more sexual energy. In short, his Stanley is, overall, on the low-key side, lacking the fire in the belly.
For her part, Doz is a cypher, and one can’t get a handle on her Stella. She is as much an aristocratic Southern belle as Blanche, but she never shows that side. Stella in this production is wishy-washy, and Doz’s characterization lacks definition. Stella should be telegraphing her reaction to the growing strained relationship between Stanley and Blanche, but Doz remains on an even keel throughout.
Prest does do a nice job as Mitch. The character can be played as a weak, polite mamma’s boy, but Prest, from the start, is direct and honest. He is not a doormat and one does see strength. We can actually believe that he is Stanley’s friend. He is charmed by Blanche, but not stupidly so, and when he turns on her, he shows anger mixed with hurt that is absolutely believable. Mitch could be a whiner, but he has greater depth than that. Prest elevates Mitch into a real person rather than just a colourless foil for both Stanley and Blanche. The multi-racial supporting cast, especially Akosua Amo-Adem as Eunice Hubbell, give solid performances.
Mengesha is the newly minted Soulpepper artistic director so, in a way, this show is a precursor of her aesthetic taste. In Streetcar, she seems to like things on the rococo, overdone side. What does not work is a window in the back wall that opens up to reveal the musicians. Now music is a very important part of A Streetcar Named Desire as it is written right into the stage directions as a mood indicator. It is part of Blanche’s character, and should come from offstage. To actually see the musicians — at one point they even parade across the stage — takes away from Blanche’s inner turmoil.
Williams wanted a “blue piano”, but what we get are vibrant Afro-Latin rhythms co-written and sung by SATE. One assumes that this is the decision of Mike Ross, who is listed as music director, and Mengesha, but it doesn’t work. While I suppose the music does captures the pulsating heart of New Orleans, it is a far cry from the playwright’s tortured blues that mirrors Blanche’s depression and downward spiral. William’s also mandated the delicate dance, “Varsouviana Polka”, when Blanche thinks about her youthful dead husband, and, happily, that ethereal, tinkling, music box tune is certainly well-incorporated into Debashis Sinha’s sound design. On the overdone side of things, Sinha has created a soundtrack that includes a multitude of rumbling streetcars and street noises galore. At one point, I thought I even heard a train whistle. It is very obvious, almost overwhelmingly so.
Which brings us to the physical production. Lorenzo Savoini has provided an interesting set of walls made out of what seems to be corrugated iron that people and objects can bang on for effect, producing a deafening crash. Everything looks suitably down and out, from the rickety staircase leading up to the Hubbell apartment above, to the shabby Kowalski flat below, all lit in suitable gloom by Kimberly Purtell. They may live in the Elysian Fields section of New Orleans’ French Quarter, but that name is a cruel joke on the part of the playwright. This is definitely not paradise. While references in the play are geared to post-war 1947, Rachel Forbes’ costumes are of any time period. Blanche is a gorgeous fashion plate, while Stella is a frump. While Blanche’s chic dresses cross decades, Stella is stuck in modern times in shorts and a top. The men are more rooted in Forties/Fifties casual wear. The look of the play is scattered.
Mengesha has attempted a lot in this production, particularly bringing the music onto the stage. She has kept Stanley, Stella and Mitch on the lower emotional scale in order to elevate Blanche to fever pitch, or so it seems. Her strength, however, does lie in highlighting details, whether we agree with them or not, and we can look forward to productions of depth. Directors make choices, and while faltering in some things, she does produce A Streetcar Named Desire of some power. Mengesha’s auteur take on Williams’ masterpiece is close but no cigar.