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'A Streetcar Named Desire' by Tennessee Williams

Now onstage in Toronto's Distillery District at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane

Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured L-R: Mac Fyfe, Amy Rutherford and Shakura Dickson

Joe Szekeres

“Intensely raw and, at times, animalistic emotional responses. Palpable and tawdry grit makes this ‘Streetcar’ thrilling.”

We find ourselves in the French Quarter of New Orleans not too long after World War Two. The city and the production are drenched in sweat with intoxicating ‘bluesy’ music, a seductive lure that draws the characters (and even me) into this district of broken dreams and relationships.

It’s the hottest of summers. It’s also a time of misogynistic relationships that appear to be accepted as the norm. Women did as the men wished. There are moments when Stella and Blanche will not acquiesce to Stanley’s wishes. It’s also a world where people shout and scream at each other with racial epithets periodically thrown in for emphasis.

A delicately nervous Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford) arrives at the cramped two-room apartment of her younger sister Stella Kowalski (Shakura Dickson) and her brutish brute husband Stanley (Mac Fyfe). Blanche has no money on her. She has taken a supposed leave of absence from her English teaching position at a school on account of her nerves. We eventually discover the truth of what happened there. She has never met her brother-in-law, and the two clash with each other because Blanche becomes critical of her sister and the life she has chosen to lead in New Orleans. Stanley is a working-class son of Polish immigrants and resents Blanche’s high and mighty superiority of airs.

Blanche and Stella are the daughters of southern plantation owners of Belle Reve Estate. When Stanley learns what happens to the estate, he’s annoyed that perhaps he and Stella (on account of the Napoleonic Code) may have been cheated out of an inheritance.

We also meet Stanley and Stella’s upstairs neighbours, Eunice Hubbell (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) and her husband, Steve (Lindsay Owen Pierce). Steve is also part of Stanley's weekly poker game in his apartment. The other poker players are Pablo (Sebastian Marziali) and ‘Mitch’ Mitchell (Gregory Prest), Stanley’s best friend and an all-around nice guy who lives with his mother and takes care of her because she is ill.

The contentious animosity between Blanche and Stanley continues to heat up continually because he senses his sister-in-law is not being honest about why she has shown up. Mitch develops feelings for Blanche, which does not sit right with Stanley.

Throughout the three-hour running time, secrets upon secrets are revealed by individuals who, according to director Weyni Mengesha’s programme note, are “connected through their desperate need to survive.”

This opening-night production is the heightened climax of what every working actor wishes and hopes to accomplish on stage – a chance to showcase how these characters manage to survive against the odds thrown at them. Mengesha weaves Williams’ intriguing theatre classic craftily. Once again, she writes in her programme note that the audience will “not see[ing] anybody truly, but all through the flaws of their own ego.” These are iconic literary characters constantly living on the brink of possible emotional and mental distortion.

Lorenzo Savoini’s sparse set design at the pre-show caught my eye immediately. He has carefully captured the gritty look of a downtown setting. Corrugated aluminum siding along the back wall with a staircase leads to Hubbell’s apartment. There is a single door centre stage. A rolling suitcase sits slightly downstage, just off-centre. Kimberley Purtell’s, at times, silhouetted and jarring lighting design perfectly accentuates and captures the intensity of the mood within the scene at a given moment. Rachel Forbes’ costume designs evoke everything from Stanley’s torn wife beater undershirt to Blanche’s frilly undergarments and dresses. Debashis Sinha’s terrific soundscape of rumbling streetcars noisily passing by Stanley and Stella’s apartment awakens the ears to create an, at times, suffocating atmosphere.

Thanks to the work of original director Mike Ross, the New Orleans music sound remains prominent. It’s loud and haunting, but Divine Brown, Oliver Dennis, Kaleb Horn, and Sebastian Marziali must be recognized for evoking this musical era and sound with marvellous aplomb.

Buckle in because the story’s pacing flies. It never feels rushed at all, ever. There are moments when Mengesha places the action smack dab in the audience’s faces where we can’t look away - nor did I want to do so - as the performances are damn good. Actors will sometimes enter from and exit through the audience, often with much fanfare, either with music or boisterously loud voices.

The stormy and chaotic lives of upstairs neighbours Steve and Eunice Hubbell (Lindsay Owen Pierre and Ordena Stephens-Thompson) strongly reflect those of the Kowalskis. Mengesha’s choice to showcase and balance how the two couples are similar, disregarding the racial element, remains quite effective.

Gregory Prest is solidly heartfelt as nice guy ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, Stanley’s best friend. Prest remains genuinely believable in his smitten infatuation with Blanche. As their summer romance begins to turn a corner in the second act, Prest’s eventual turning against Blanche may seem entirely out of character for the gentle Mitch, but damn believable because she has hurt him.

Shakura Dickson’s Stella remains feisty but oh-so compassionate towards Blanche. Dickson and Mac Fyfe become a jaw-dropping, fiery, sensual, and carnal syncopation of animalistic lust and rawness.

The attraction, repulsion, magic, and reality between Amy Rutherford’s coyly teasing, beautiful Blanche and Mac Fyfe’s brawny, muscled and dominant Stanley drive this performance forward with a powerful thrust of a definite sexual kinetic rawness. That moment in Act Two is handled with a loud crashing bang against the corrugated aluminum siding and a flourishing theatricality of light and sound, leaving me momentarily speechless.

And Another Thought: Blanche tells Stanley in Act Two: “I don’t want realism; I want magic.”

This gripping opening night performance makes me reconsider this line: “I want the realism to be magic.”

It may seem odd to call this ‘Streetcar’s’ realism magic, but it is for me. The magic stems from a stellar cast and crew entirely focused on creating a world of fragility susceptible to demons, as mentioned in the programme.

It’s not just Blanche at the end of the play who must face her demons. This ‘Streetcar’s’ final tableaux reveal how each character must fight his/her past of demons and recognize how they have been changed through the arrival of Blanche DuBois.

Running time: approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes with one interval.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ runs until July 7 in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane. For tickets: Soulpepper.ca or call (416) 866-8666.

SOULPEPPER THEATRE COMPANY presents
‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’ by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Assistant Director: Tanya Rintoul
Set Design: Lorenzo Savoini
Costume Design: Rachel Forbes
Lighting Design: Kimberly Purtell
Associate Lighting Designer: Imogen Wilson
Sound Design: Debashis Sinha
Original Music Director: Mike Ross
Original Fight Direction: Simon Fon / Fight Director: Daniel Levinson
Remount Intimacy Director: Burcu Emeç
Dramaturg: Joanna Falck
Stage Manager: Robert Harding
Assistant Stage Manager: Laura Baxter

Performers: Divine Brown, Oliver Dennis, Shakura Dickson, Mac Fyfe, Kaleb Horn, Sebastian Marziali, Lindsay Owen Pierre, Gregory Prest, Amy Rutherford, Ordena Stephens-Thompson

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