A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite Theatre Company)
La Boite Theatre, Roundhouse Theatre
October 15 – November 12
Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is an epic work. With the addition of musical accompaniment and interludes, La Boite’s version of the classic pushes out to almost three hours, which becomes a big ask as Act One languishes towards its 90 minute conclusion. Although it competes with opening scene dialogue, the music (featuring vocals by Crystal West) adds to the sultry atmosphere of Louisiana featuring as it does original songs composed by Guy Webster, mixed with more well-known numbers, such as (like in the 2014 London revival) a perfectly placed ‘Wicked Game’…. But it seems like an unnecessary addition to a work that already sizzles with laden dialogue and a tension-filled Act Two in which its performances ultimately prevail in ensuring audience absorption.
The Pultizer Prize winning story begins with the unannounced arrival of faded and damaged but well-put-together southern belle Blanche Du Boise (Bridie Carter) from Mississippi to stay with her younger sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) in their claustrophobic two bedroom New Orleans flat. Uncomfortable in the surrounds of her sister’s low-rent address, delicately-mannered English teacher Blanche talks feverishly, self-obsessively and insensitively about Stella’s circumstance. ‘I’m not going to be hypocritical, I’m going to be honestly critical about it!’ she says, along with explanation that she has left her employment mid-term, at the suggestion of her school superintendent, due to exhaustion induced by her nerves. From the outset, however, Stanley suspects that there is more to Blanche’s story and sets upon a quest to cruelly expose her genteel façade.
The sense of a stifling New Orleans abounds. The raked stage is canvas to the rhythmic shadow of a languidly rotating ceiling fan and Guy Webster’s sound design regularly sends streetcars clattering past, even during intermission, which is a nice touch. Ben Hughes’ lighting design adds an initial warm to the two basic rooms of the Kowalski home, but also later lyricism to Blanche’s dreamy-blue, attempted seduction of an uncomfortable young man who comes to the door to collect money for the paper, turning the text’s evocative stage directions into a distinct experience.
All of this play’s iconic characters have their flaws and the diverse, talented cast brings them all to well-formed life, even down to their distinctly Southern accents, thanks to accent and dialect coach Melissa Agnew. La Boite newcomer Phan is excellent as a Stella torn between her diametrically opposed husband and sister, but ultimately in love an loyal to Stanley and his coarse behaviour. And her anguish in the final scenes is heartbreaking.
Self-delusional and highly-strung Blanche is one of the great tragic figures of the modern stage and Carter certainly does her justice in a portrayal that captures both her breezy pretension and desperate loneliness and hurt. Under Todd Macdonald’s direction, this increasingly unkept Blanche is both fragile creature and feisty fighter, and Carter conveys each layer perfectly, especially in her doomed monologue to sensitive suitor Mitch (Colin Smith) about her desperate desire for magic.
McMahon brings a rough primitivism to the (by his own admission) unrefined, simple and straightforward Stanley, both in his rowdy poker game participation and by bellowing ‘Stella’ into the night after striking his wife and causing her to flee upstairs to apartment building owner Eunice (Parmis Rose). Although initially more bogan than brutish, he brings personality and clarity to the text to illustrate Stanley’s contrast to Blanche’s demure demeanour, making some early lines feel as fresh as if they are being said for the first time.
And from his first brief line in Scene One, Smith is simply lovely as the gentlemanly Mitch, more sensitive than Stanley’s other poker friends, obliging to Blanche’s every vain whim, despite never having gotten more than a goodnight kiss in return.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a tough play of complex relationships and almost 70 years after it was first written, it still leaves audiences with much to consider in assessment of whether it is Stanley or Blanche herself who is more to blame for Blanche’s ultimate ruin. In addition, the relevance of its themes of domestic violence and mental health issues, so problematic in our modern society, makes it resonate strongly. By adding a little humour to its ultimate despair, this production makes it an accessible, albeit lengthy show, sure to leave audiences satisfied.
Photos c/o – Dylan Evans