“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth.” Blanche DuBois
Let me say right up front that I am a big X Files fan. I’ve always had a crush on Dana Scully, the smart, beautiful FBI agent who kept school boy Fox Mulder in his place. By turn, I have always had a crush on Gillian Anderson, the actress that played Scully. When I saw that she was going to be doing A Streetcar Named Desire in Brooklyn, I knew I had to see it. Streetcar also happens to be one of the best plays ever written by one of my favorite playwrights, Tennessee Williams. I was not surprised at all that Gillian Anderson completely rocks the part of Blanche DuBois, attacking it with such an emotional ferocity while working that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy like a wire walker. But I was surprised when I saw her walk into view from the front of the house, “She’s so tiny!”
Streetcar takes place in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson) has come to town to stay with her younger pregnant sister, Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband, Stanley (Ben Foster). Blanche is a full on Southern belle who takes pride in her figure, likes to dress well and has a penchant for bourbon. Blanch has lost the family home of Belle Reve and Stanley is suspicious that Blanche has sold it and kept all the money. He’s also not impressed with Blanche’s manner which makes him fell she’s looking down on him and his ability to take care of his wife. Stanley is a brute to be sure. When he hits Stella in a drunken rage she and Blanche take refuge with the neighbor upstairs, who’s also the victim of an abusive husband. This leads to the famous scene where Stanley pleads for Stella from the street and Stella comes down the stairs to reconcile with her husband.
“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.” Blanche
Over the course of the Summer Blanche strikes up a relationship with one of Stanley’s poker buddies, Mitch (Corey Johnson), a mild mannered man that still lives with his mother. Mitch is not like Stanley, he is very respectful and old fashioned and he is like a little boy as he tries to woo this refined lady.
Stanley eventually finds out more about Blanche and her indiscretions with men and a young student of hers and uses it to force her out of his house and ruin her relationship with Mitch. Their simmering feud leads to a disturbing climactic confrontation that will have you squirming in your seat. This does not have a happy ending. But if you are familiar with the work of Tennessee Williams you already know that.
This was my first time seeing the play done live and it was a very energetic, powerful presentation. The space at the new St. Ann’s Warehouse Theater location in Dumbo, under The Brooklyn Bridge is very intimate and inviting. The setting is Stanley and Stella’s apartment, a kitchen, bedroom and bathroom and it is built on a set that is in constant motion, slowing turning as the action takers place. At first I didn’t understand how this would work but it soon became apparent that this was representative of Blanche’s unstable psyche and with each turn the tension keeps mounting. It lends a very surrealistic feel to the action. Others may have a different opinion and that’s okay. Theater is a very interpretive art as much for the audience as it is for the actors, writer and director. The actors prowl around the spinning set, sometimes to thrilling effect as when Stanly grabs hold of a metal bar on the staircase and lets himself be dragged as the set pivots.
Ben Foster (Lone Survivor, Kill Your Darlings) is an excellent film actor and I was excited to see him live. He didn’t disappoint. His bulked up physique made him look like a battering ram that that was ready to take out anyone that got in his way. Vanessa Kirby is wonderful as Stella. She’s the opposite of her big sister (besides being several inches taller). She lives in the present and she accepts her lot in life and is completely fine with it, even when Stanley takes his frustration out on her from time to time. Corey Johnson plays Mitch so sweetly. He’s completely blindsided in all this. He thinks he’s found the girl he can take home to momma and he’s devastated to find out she’s quite the opposite.
But it’s Gillian Anderson who brings it all together with her very brave and physically demanding performance as Blanche. The journey you take with her in this three and a half hour show is as thrilling as it is tragic and damaging. It wasn’t until she spoke her final line, perhaps the most quoted line from the play besides “Stella!”, I was able to exhale.
“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”
A Streetcar Named Desire plays at St. Ann’s Theater through June 4th.