A Streetcar Named Desire
London's exhilarating Young Vic production comes to Brooklyn.
Blanche DuBois, the protagonist of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, and possibly the most well known heroine of the American stage, comes from the Mississippi plantation of Belle Reve (literally, "Beautiful dream"). And truly, as portrayed by the brilliant Gillian Anderson, Blanche wholly embodies the beautiful dream of Southern gentility. It's a fantasy that likely never really existed in the first place, but still one in which we would prefer to live when faced with the awful, brutal reality of our modern condition as created by director Benedict Andrews for London's Young Vic. Now playing St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, this Streetcar is fleshy, bloody, and completely alive.
Certainly, the material lends itself to vitality. Premiering in 1947, Streetcar was Williams' sophomore drama on Broadway and the one that solidified his place as a great American playwright. A gritty family drama steeped in social issues, it earned the accolades of critics as well as the ire of censors in London and other cities around the globe. As this production proves, Streetcar is just as controversial and electric nearly seven decades on.
It tells the story of Blanche (Anderson), a southern belle who flees to the home of her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband, Stanley (Ben Foster), in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Their modest two-room apartment is nothing like the grand-plantation home in which the sisters grew up, but since that has been lost to decades of financial mismanagement and "epic fornications," it is Blanche's only option. This fallen aristocrat immediately clashes with the blue-collar Stanley, who won't stand for her hoity-toity attitude. Blanche takes a liking to Stanley's sensitive friend Mitch (Corey Johnson), but as her past starts to catch up with her, he begins to suspect that her virginal damsel routine is just a facade. She becomes increasingly desperate to seal the deal or find a way out.
Anderson is a marvel as Blanche: Girlish and witty, she seems to punctuate every other sentence with the faintest outline of a laugh. Detractors might accuse her of "sitcom acting" in affecting the character of a larger-than-life Southern lady (but those people probably haven't met many Southern ladies). Anderson grippingly portrays a woman accustomed to surviving on her charms, now entering an economy in which such skills are not valued, especially by the "ape" of the house.
Physically, Foster is everything you would want in a Stanley: muscular, hirsute, and decorated in tattoos. His pelvis propels his every step. He's rough, ill-mannered, and totally hot. Vocally, he adopts an exaggerated Chicago accent. It's a dramaturgically logical choice for a Polish-American named "Kowalski," but those harsh northern vowels have a tendency to sound whiny, pushing Foster's voice into the tenor register and sapping this Stanley of some of his husky allure.
Of course, Stella loves him no matter what. Kirby is appropriately affable as the peace-keeping wife stuck between her old and new life (at one point, lighting designer Jon Clark surrounds her figure in a glowing halo). Johnson's Mitch is also likable, but extremely awkward. There's no real chemistry between him and Blanche and we get the sense that she sees him as a contingency plan. Contributing to the atmosphere, Sarah-Jane Potts memorably portrays upstairs neighbor Eunice, often hanging out on the steps wearing jean shorts and flip-flops, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other.
Director Andrews sets the story in the now: Costume designer Victoria Behr outfits the cast in modern, synthetic fibers: Blanche wears chunky sunglasses while Stanley dons Under Armour and cargo shorts. Scenic designer Magda Willi has built the Kowalski apartment on a rotating platform with audience on all sides: It not only gives us a view of the space from every angle, but keeps us slightly disoriented so that we feel Blanche's anxiety in our guts. The pace at which the apartment spins seems to roughly correspond with her madness. Filled with inexpensive white-and-beige furniture, the whole thing looks like a high-concept revolving IKEA display — the ideal venue for Blanche's humiliation.
Clark's lighting becomes another antagonist in the play, menacing Blanche's candlelit romance with the harness of the fluorescent house lights. When Mitch turns them on, she recoils like a vampire. Paul Arditti's aggressive sound design further clues us into the show playing in Blanche's head, with Alex Baranowski's "Varsouviana" returning like a Wagnerian leitmotif each time she thinks about her dead husband. Wearing a gown of frilly pink tulle and a rhinestone tiara near the end of the second act, Blanche is Belle Reve Barbie — evicted from her dream house and stuffed away in this filthy shoebox of an apartment.
Even more than in 1947, Blanche appears ridiculous in 2016: Our modern culture of disposable furniture and casual clothing has no room for a debutante from an ancient manor home. She is redundant and the Shiva-like Stanley is hell-bent on destroying her. As American society continues to grind forward, those left in the lurch by this rapid transition might be tempted to identify with a solid union man like Stanley; but upon closer inspection (which this production thrillingly offers), they're likely to find more empathy with Blanche.