"So many people have condemned the play for its sordid theme," Vivien Leigh said in a 1950s interview about Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," the vehicle for one of her most indelible achievements as an actress. "To me it is an infinitely moving plea for tolerance for all weak, frail creatures, blown about like leaves before the wind of circumstance."
That plea seemed more affecting than ever as the Sydney Theatre Company's production of "Streetcar" unfolded Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, with Cate Blanchett inhabiting the central role of Blanche DuBois. (Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton are artistic directors of the company.)
Few characters are as fragile or as cruelly buffeted by fate, as Blanche, who never seems able to find a welcoming "cleft in the rock of the world." Her need for sensual pleasure, social nicety and at least the illusion of enchantment collides with reality in the humble New Orleans lodging ("Only Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice," she says) of her sister Stella and decidedly unsubtle brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.
By revealing Blanche's descent into madness - ascent may be a better word - Williams opens a window into what makes all of us human, all of us vulnerable.
Directed with a superb eye for detail and nuance by celebrated actress Liv Ullmann, this tautly paced staging benefits not only from Blanchett's mesmerizing performance (her star quality has made this one of the hardest-to-get-tickets of the season), but also strongly etched portrayals by a finely tuned ensemble cast. Fittingly, there were no solo bows on Saturday.
From her first appearance, Blanchett revealed the faded-flower essence of Blanche, her eyes nervous, her hands trembly (as much from reliance on alcohol, it would seem, as from worry). Some of her delivery early on recalled Leigh's timing and timbre in the film version of "Streetcar," but any resemblances passed quickly as Blanchett established her own firm stamp on Blanche's personality and physicality.
The actress proved particularly poignant in the crushing second act scene with Stanley's poker buddy Mitch, the one man who seems to see beauty and possibility in Blanche, but cannot handle the truth about her. As the layers of fiction and deception were peeled away, Blanchett tellingly revealed Blanche's capacity for bold defiance even while gravely wounded.
And in the final moments of the play, Blanchett again went deep inside the weary, battered world of the woman who had once been the belle of Belle Reve, the now-lost ancestral home where Blanche grew up with Stella. The intensity and incisiveness Blanchett achieved here, in every gesture and word, proved stunning. The sight of this Blanche pulling a shawl over her head, as if she hoped it would make her invisible, or being led away not even fully dressed by the stranger on whose kindness she must now depend, lingered in the memory long afterward.
That finale was made doubly effective by the sound of Mitch sobbing, a touch that risked turning melodramatic, but instead registered with almost unbearable realism. It was just one more deft, thoroughly natural element in Ullmann's richly textured approach to the production.
The chiseled Joel Edgerton arrestingly captured the "something sub-human" about Stanley that Blanche recoiled from, without slighting the warmer side of the man that would account for Stella's fierce fidelity. Robin McLeavy gave a sympathetic, beautifully nuanced performance as Stella. Tim Richards did impressive work as the gentle, clumsy Mitch. There were vibrant characterizations from Mandy McElhinney (Eunice) and Michael Denkha (Steve), and a subtle contribution from Morgan David Jones (A Young Collector).
Ralph Myers designed the starkly atmospheric set (the Kowalski's flat looks as sparse as the Kramden's on "The Honeymooners"), a place where the sound of a passing streetcar or the sight of a curtain-rustling breeze is heavy with menace. Tess Schofield's costumes and Nick Schlieper's lighting complete the strong visual assets. Music is used to keen effect, especially the lilting sounds of Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood," which Blanche seeks out for a moment's comfort on a little phonograph.
Such small things mean a lot in a production that so artfully underlines the enduring power of a play that still has much to teach us about "deliberate cruelty," the telling of "what ought to be truth," the toll and terror of desire.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" continues through Nov. 21 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, Washington. The show is sold out. Call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.