Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.
When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.
With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.
Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).
Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.
Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.
The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.
ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.