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Review: Soulpepper rides a streetcar to success with bold new remount (Includes first-hand account)

Watching Streetcar today – specifically, the engrossing new Soulpepper production, which opened last night – affirms its timelessness, but also forces you to see its themes in completely new ways. Through an enlightened 2019 filter, the story of fading, neurotic southern belle Blanche DuBois (played beautifully by Amy Rutherford) has fresh things to say about anxiety, abuse and mental health. Her brother-in-law and chief tormentor, Stanley Kowalski (Mac Fyfe), is truly the ultimate embodiment of toxic masculinity. It’s as if Williams had learned the woke buzzwords of our time, 70 years early.

Director Weyni Mengesha’s bold, confident staging is well over three hours long, and it’s occasionally noisy, with scene breaks filled by live jazz and blues music; her vision of New Orleans is a loud, vibrant and violent city where the partying goes on all night long and fights can break out at any time – a definite threat to Blanche’s delicate, high-strung state. But Mengesha is wise enough to leave the dressing and atmosphere in the background and stay true to the feelings and the tones of Williams’ original vision, and the result is a remount that seems surprisingly fresh.

A plot summary should be unnecessary here, but in case anyone needs a half-baked one: Blanche arrives at the shabby New Orleans apartment of Stanley and her sister, Stella (Leah Doz), under mysterious circumstances, claiming that the DuBois family estate has been lost. Her aristocratic pretensions clash with Stanley’s sloppy personal habits and casual violence, but she finds refuge in a new relationship with his gentle poker buddy, Mitch (Gregory Prest). As Blanche outstays her welcome by months, Stanley learns dark secrets about her past, threatening her sanity – and her one last shot at a happy life.

Rutherford’s performance is one of the key reasons why this production works so well. Blanche is a character vividly fixed in our minds, in popular culture, and you can sense echoes of past incarnations in Rutherford’s portrayal: she gives you the sexiness of Vivien Leigh, the frail vulnerability of Jessica Lange, the affected primness of Jessica Tandy. But she also imbues the role with her own unique qualities, like a self-deprecating sense of humour and a theatrical flair. And as the worldly and unpretentious Stella, Doz is Blanche’s perfect foil. Girlish, sensual, not high-cultured yet solidly street-smart, amused by Blanche’s perceived overreactions yet deeply concerned for her, Doz scores as a contemporary Stella, who could be any fun-loving young woman you’d meet at a club or house party.

Soulpepper has an odd habit of typecasting Prest as nice-guy saps whom others take advantage of (I guess he has a face for it), so it’s no shock that he appears as Mitch here. But he handles the part well, moving convincingly from jittery, schoolboy-like infatuation for Blanche to rage and disillusionment near the end. When he brags about his athletic ability to her, his quirky delivery gets laughs from the audience; he’s like a kid showing off to his parents.

I’m more ambivalent about Fyfe’s take on Stanley, and I say that while recognizing that it’s a very difficult role – requiring violent edge, but also a level of sympathy – and commending Fyfe for not trying to emulate Marlon Brando’s iconic performance in any way. Fyfe and Mengesha are right not to make Stanley a complete villain, but there are times when he comes off more like a modern hipster with anger issues (especially with his beard and unbuttoned dress shirts) than the old-school, macho Alpha Male he should be. A few of Blanche’s reactions seem a little out of proportion with Stanley’s behaviour – for example, when she cries out, “I’ve said I was sorry three times!” when he complains about the heat in the bathroom; perhaps he needs more aggression there.

On the other hand, the famous “Stella!” screaming scene is rightly disturbing and frightening, with Fyfe baying and howling his wife’s name in wild, hysterical grief – and then reacting with boyish relief when she emerges from the neighbours’ pad. And a scene of sexual assault comes as a sudden shock even when you know it’s coming, with the help of unexpected lighting and sound effects.

This Streetcar ride has a few minor bumps, but Mengesha steers it on all the right tracks. If you think you already know this play inside-out, prepare to see it anew. If you don’t know it at all, prepare to be stunned and heartbroken.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until October 27.

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