Joel Edgerton and Cate Blanchett
in A Streetcar Named Desire
(© Lisa Tomasetti)
Joel Edgerton and Cate Blanchett
in A Streetcar Named Desire
(© Lisa Tomasetti)
Theatergoers lucky enough to catch Cate Blanchett's astounding performance as Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theatre, will find the Academy Award-winning actress has cast this iconic role in an entirely fresh, and ultimately harrowing, light.

There's no indication of the actress' innovative approach to the part during the opening moments of director Liv Ullmann's strikingly honest and no-nonsense production. In fact, it looks as if Blanchett might be portraying the shattered Southern belle in a rather traditional fashion; there's a haunted and ethereal quality to the haughty Blanche as she first enters.

But as soon as her sister Stella (whom Robin McLeavy imbues with almost radiant goodness that's tempered by a sensual earthiness) arrives to greet her sister, Blanchett's performance transforms astoundingly. Blanche, who has desperately hunted for a swig of booze before her sister's arrival, is now surprisingly sturdy, commanding, and even bitingly and wryly funny. Similarly, as the play progresses, there are moments when Blanche appears to have regressed to being a teenager as she flirts with the men around her, particularly Tim Richards' utterly charming Mitch, or teases Stella. It's almost as if there's no end to the bag of tricks that this only occasionally fluttery and flighty Blanche has at her disposal for getting what she wants -- and surviving.

Blanche's wiles -- which at times she seems to have culled from years of watching screen greats of the era as a sort of coping mechanism -- begin to fail as her drinking accelerates. Still, Blanche's descent into this fallen state is not entirely self-inflicted. Stella's husband Stanley (Joel Edgerton) has unrelentingly chipped away at his sister-in-law's delusions and behavior. Refreshingly, the boyishly good-looking Edgerton does not portray Stanley as a simple, brutish thug. Instead, the actor layers his characterization, creating a Stanley who has honed his street-smarts almost as carefully as Blanche has honed her various masks. He is fighting for what's his and he's unwilling to allow himself to be taken in by her artifice.

Ullmann's unflinching production unfolds in the dingy environs of Stanley and Stella's claustrophobic apartment (designed by Ralph Myers), which has been creepily divorced from any of the romantic atmosphere of New Orleans' French Quarter. Paul Charlier's soundscape pipes in jazz music from the clubs that surround the place, but it also brings the titular streetcar to life with wall-shaking intensity. This isn't a postcard-like Bohemianism into which Blanche finds herself thrust. Rather, it's a squalid working-class existence -- and one that is a long way from the fabled plantation on which she and Stella were raised.

By the time the play reaches its final scenes, Blanche's once perfectly coiffed platinum hair hangs sadly around her face -- and she's so frantic that she flings herself under a bed in pitiable madness. It's little wonder that there's talk of whether or not this once-strong woman, who leaves wearing merely a slip and shawl, should be restrained in a straight jacket.