A Streetcar Named Desire (Brisbane Arts Theatre)
Brisbane Arts Theatre
January 31 – February 29
The 1947 play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a significant one, the most celebrated of Tennessee Williams’ works. The classic drama, is poetically symbolic but also grimly naturalistic, which is represented in the detached but detailed staging of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production. Staging works well in emphasising the play’s symbolism through its use of glassless mirrors and also aesthetically as lighting invites its audience into both the sweltering New Orleans temperatures and the tiny, tension-filled, rundown, clearly lived-in, two-room tenement apartment of Stanley (Reagan Warner) and Stella (Claire Argente) Kowalski.
Ryan McDonald’s lighting design transitions time and also reflects the work’s darker themes of shattered illusions. Erin Tribble’s costumes capture its post WW2 era and distinct characters, while Zoe Power’s sound design authenticates it’s setting with the echoes of passing New Orleans French Quarter streetcars. It is one of the Desire line cars that Blanche Du Bois (Victoria Darbro) takes to visit younger (but-not-really) sister Stella and her common Polack husband Stanley, seeking refuge after the loss of her family estate, the symbolically named Belle Reve (Beautiful Dream).
What follows is a passionate but brutal story of toxic relationships and troubled people as Blanche finds Stanley brazen and abusive, while Stanley’s suspicious of both Blanche’s motives and her past increase towards cruelty. Like the languor of a steamy Louisiana afternoon, “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a long show of just over three hours’ duration (including two 10-minute intervals), which only makes the efforts of its performers all the more impressive.
The cast is excellent. Warner, who gave a commanding performance as John Proctor in 2018’s “The Crucible”, makes for a youthful Stanley but is otherwise up for the job as the chiselled and animalistic antagonist. His presence on stage is undeniable, even as he finds the script’s humour in search through Blanche’s trunk of precious costumes and jewels on a Napoleonic code quest of discovery and mention of his many acquaintances who deal with ‘this sort of stuff’. Laughs soon give way, however, to more sombre sentiments in the Kowalski’s abusive marriage and the collapse of Blanche’s world toward reliance on ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Darbro is compelling as the fragile, faded belle Blanche, even if her delicate mental condition is apparent from the outset, leaving less room for her later fall. Still, her passive-aggressive, too-good-to-be-true refinement and nervous anxiety as the demure, pampered Southern belle leaving behind a life of loss in small-town Mississippi, is one of the best I have seen. Her accent is integral to her performance, rather than serving as a distracter and she handles a costuming slip-up without missing a character beat, although her monologues are not always as powerfully delivered as they perhaps could be.
Argente does justice to the complicated role of Stella. Passionate in contrast to Blanche’s cool detachment from reality, but also calm and practical in the midst of chaos, she also captures the complex sensuality of Stella’s relationship with Stanley. Indeed, Argente and Warner are magnetic on stage together as the troublesome couple, whether fighting or reuniting. And solid in support is Jon Daabro as the decent and trusting Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, the most mannered, but also meek, of Stanley’s poker-playing friends who shows Blanche kindness, but is blind to reality as he feelings are trifled with, meaning that we feel thankful when he gets to say exactly what is on his mind.
A production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is a formidable undertaking; not only is it a southern Gothic masterpiece, but it has integrated into popular culture, meaning that even those new to its experience on stage will likely have some familiarity with its most famous quotes, courtesy of pop culture staples like “Seinfeld” or “The Simpsons”. This is no museum piece though; the searing reality of the play on stage is an intense experience, especially given its explosive depictions of domestic violence. And in Brisbane Arts Theatre’s hands it is an intensity that results in superlative excellence all around.