The theatre is plunged in total darkness. Garbled conversations, blaring car horns, rumbling engines, echoing footsteps. The sounds of the streets bring the room to life. A single spotlight shines on Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford). And so begins Soulpepper Theatre’s rendition of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Director Weyni Mengesha’s retelling of Tennessee William’s award-winning classic captivates the audience from beginning to end. With talented actors and a dynamic set, it’s difficult to focus on anything else but the reality the stage creates.
The play focuses on the complexity of humans. How fickle they are. How fragile. Mengesha takes these qualities that William penned and holds them up in a new light. Taking what each character has and turning it this way and that for the audience to examine and understand. Coupled with the masterful use of music and scene setting, we are thrust into the characters’ lives, before things break open.
Set in New Orleans during the late 1940s, the play dramatizes the allure of fantasy and the cruelty of reality. Family. Love. Loss. Desire.
The premise of the story seems simple. Critical older sister Blanche barges into the home of her sister Stella (Leah Doz) and brother-in-law Stanley (Mac Fyfe). Almost immediately we see Blanche’s character. A lady of etiquette and breeding with a propensity for imbibing in alcohol and a habit of lying through her flighty smile. This is a sharp contrast to her practical younger sister with the patience of a saint and the bravery of a lion.
Blanche’s unannounced visit doesn’t sit quite well with Stanley, someone she would later describe as common, animalistic, and unsuited for her sister. This leads to both of them picking each other apart with Stella trying to find some sort of middle ground.
Tensions run high and strings of patience are pulled taut as Blanche overstays her welcome at the Kowalski household. One too many lies, two too many arguments, and three too many drinks lead to a climactic evening where everything falls apart, just as Blanche does.
The strength of this production lies in the casting and creative direction. Each actor is fully immersed in their character. Whether they are in the centre of the conflict such as Blanche and Stanley, or a humble flower vendor that fosters a sense of authenticity long after he’s left the stage.
It is the very same dedication to authenticity that may make it difficult to get through for audiences. Mature themes are abundant. Sexual promiscuity, violence, abuse, mental instability. Grim topics woven into a story that needs to be told. It is this difficulty that makes the take-away so important, as long as you can sit through the lingering odour of the herbal cigarettes frequently lit on stage.
There are small pockets of reprieve. Artistic scene breaks in the form of wordless tunes and a lively band. Funny interjections by minor characters. Just enough to break the heavy message the story carries. Then we’re dragged back with dialogue that rings vibrantly with meaning. It’s three hours and thirteen minutes of sheer artistry that will haunt you long after you’ve left the room.