No one does women like Tennessee Williams. It's widely accepted that some of his flamboyantly faded female characters stand in for the playwright himself; perhaps that has something to do with their vividness. Whatever the case, any of these roles provide a field day for a fearless actress.
Few present-day movie stars show such consistent bravery in their performances and their choice of roles as Cate Blanchett. Unlike some transformational actors, Ms. Blanchett has the option, when in a role in which she doesn't have to do much (such as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings cycle), of seeming to relax and taking over the screen by simply glowing. But there's little call for mere radiance on the stage; there wasn't in the 2006 Hedda Gabler, another Sydney Theatre Company production starring Ms. Blanchett that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nor is their any holding back in the company's current production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Ms. Blanchett's Blanche DuBois is certainly a lovely creature – sparkly-eyed, regally erect, monster-sexy – but thoroughly convincing as the insecure, childish, flirtatious, ungracefully aging southern belle who, having "lost" her family's country estate under mysterious circumstances, comes to live with her pregnant sister Stella (a superb Robin McLeavy) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (a seismic Joel Edgerton) in their humble New Orleans apartment.
Its two rooms separated only by a flimsy curtain, the apartment stands before us in its entirety. Ralph Myers' set, evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper in garish electric yellows and spooky Cajun blues, snugly suggests the Kowalskis' limited working-class horizons. At first startled by the humble surroundings, Blanche adapts handily, if passive-aggressively, and soon takes up with Stanley's friend, the highly moral Mitch (an excellent Tim Richards), who, charmed by Blanche's nighttime glamour, has a rude awakening in store when details of her past emerge.
Streetcar is a somewhat schizophrenic work. The first half plays as an expertly constructed ensemble piece. Unlike most of his zillions of imitators, Williams can do a prodigal-relation-arrives-to-shake-things-up plot without any sense of strain or cliche. His magical ability to fuse consummate craft with utter sincerity reached an apex in a handful of plays, Streetcar being one of them.
But the second half turns into Blanche's show, and while Blanche may be a faded flower, Ms. Blanchett is no shrinking violet, giving us a spectacular, galvanic Blanche. During scene changes, her silhouette can be made out prancing across the stage fully in character. Coming out with the cast for the five curtain calls the audience demanded last night, she looked like a sailing ship that's been dashed against the rocks a few times and is still bobbling upright only through some sort of miracle.
Mr. Edgerton as Stanley, another great Williams role, matches Blanche note for harsh note in their scenes together, trying his damnedest to take her down, using his magnetic masculinity as fervently as she wields her feminine charms. Equally strong is Ms. McLeavy as Stella, embodying sexiness and earth-motherhood in equal measure, holding down the emotional and moral center, often tearful but never weak. Despite no physical resemblance, the two actresses convince as sisters, long-separated but knowing each other all too well.
Is Cate Blanchett's a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Dec. 20 at BAM.