An achingly slow ceiling fan stirs trouble into the pea-soup air of a musty, humid summer on Elysian Fields, the allegorical destination of Blanche Dubois (Bridie Carter) – Elysian, referencing the land of the dead. Dubois’ ‘desires’ apparently lead her right there as she arrives destitute at her sister Stella’s (Ngoc Phan) home, seeking sanctuary from an unconventional past.
Stella’s husband Stanley (played to loathing perfection by Travis McMahon) immediately suspects Blanche of trying to swindle him out of his spousal inheritance and so the torturous unravelling of his sister-in-law begins. It is now on show at La Boite Theatre in A Streetcar Named Desire.
We all know Tennessee Williams’ most famous tale don’t we? Or do we just call to mind the immortalized cry, “Stellaaaa!” dramatically exhaled from that handsome, dark-horse Marlon Brandon in the movie version of the fifties? Brando’s one-shot legacy somewhat dilutes the vile, vitriolic cretin that is Stanley Kowalski, but McMahon with his sweaty wife-beater, slicked back hair and unattractive hunch vividly reminds us of his chilling, premeditated nastiness and the habitual victim-blaming of society against women.
Director Todd Macdonald says that when he re-read the classic text he was surprised at how relevant it still is today and this latest retelling is certainly a gripping, gritty one that will shake you.
To the soft jazzy tunes of a live band that plays throughout the show (Parmis Rose, Guy Webster, Kristal West), you spend a bit of time getting your bearings on Vilma Mattila’s (set and costume) and Kevin O’Brien’s (design consultant) striking set. The small two-room abode of Stella and Stanley is raised on stumps as if stepping up momentarily from the under-current of a seamy bayou, and creates physical levels between the street below and the no-bullshit neighbour Eunice (also Parmis Rose) perched in the apartment above.
Feisty Eunice easily pushes around her dopey husband Steve (Alexander Forero, who also wonderfully doubles as a flower merchant) and regularly rescues and relinquishes Stella – who cannot be convinced to finish with Stanley, the lure of brutality too strong.
The rooms where Stella and Stanley live sort-of tip inward so that the inhabitants are always at risk of sliding into each other, a clever visual allusion to the struggles of literally living on top of one another. There are no walls to this tenement – the audience are the walls, hemming the residents in from all four sides and silently colluding to keep what is witnessed just between us. It’s the walls isn’t it, that protects the domestic perpetrator from being uncovered; the use of the theatre-in-the-round here is confronting.
Bridie Carter is indescribable brilliance in the role of Blanche Dubois and paired with McMahon, it is a religious experience to watch them perform. I was mesmerized by Carter’s hands as Dubois becomes agitated and starts to break apart; the way her hands tense and quiver with the treacherous excitement of a woman who is aware that she is orchestrating her own doom but cannot and will not unmake the path she has laid down. The way she screeches “fire” when her desires of suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) turns dastardly by the twisting gossip planted by Stanley. It must have been hell for so many women of the time when independent thought was diagnosed as mental disorder and often treated with lobotomy. Williams’ own sister suffered this fate and is thought to have inspired Dubois, arguably, the most famous and tragic character of Williams’ career.
And what of that writing talent, is it a cliché to say we don’t make them like that any more? Williams’ outstanding knack to lure you happily through a story with a twist here and a turn there and then bam! You’re shocked and you’re done. I wonder if this story were written today whether a modern writer would need to save everyone – Williams’ honours the desperate truth that people don’t survive each other.
La Boite, is a reliable purveyor of high quality theatre and the outstanding production values of A Streetcar Named Desire has delivered supremely on that promise; more like this one please! An unmissable show for the 2016 season.
A Streetcar Named Desire will play at the La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre till November 20.