Blanche DuBois may be looking for magic, but it’s unforgiving realism that floods the theater at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where a gritty and gripping production of A Streetcar Named Desire is performances.
Starring Gillian Anderson as Tennessee Williams’ faded Southern belle, this production, directed by Benedict Andrews, unforgivingly refuses to offer the audience any sense of illusion. There is no curtain to draw at intermission and, staged in St. Ann’s in the round performing space, nowhere to look to avoid to violence, both emotional and physical, taking place onstage. The clinically sterile, all-white set, designed by Magda Willi, begins to slowly revolve when Blanche puts down her suitcases in Stella and Stanley’s apartment, inspiring the feeling that the characters and the audience are beginning a journey that is doomed and from which we are unable to disembark.
Anderson, known to American audiences as the academic Scully in The X-Files, brings Blanche to trembling, desperate life. From the moment she steps into the theater, fresh from personal and financial tragedy in her hometown, it is clear this Blanche is inches away from a complete breakdown. Her attempts to flirt with Stanley, her determination to avoid any form of light or truth and to rewrite her history and establish some kind of future with the kind and respectable Mitch (a truly excellent Corey Johnson) make it clear this is a woman who is at the end of her rope and has arrived at her sister Stella’s home because, as she says frequently, she has “nowhere else to go.”
And she immediately clashes with Stanley, brought to raw and sensual life by Ben Foster, Stella’s working-class Polish husband who resents the arrival of a seemingly high-class woman in this low-income part of the French Quarter. Stanley, who was famously portrayed in the original Broadway production and film in a star-making performance by Marlon Brando, provides a harsh masculine contrast to Blanche’s calculatingly delicate femininity. But Foster inhabits Stanley with a much more casual attitude than those familiar with this often-produced play are accustomed to; his first conversation with Blanche could even be seen as friendly before the two engage in battle, constantly surveying the other to discover a weakness or crack in armor. Surprising at first, this offers even more shock and despair when, drunk with his male friends, Stanley erupts in violence and hits Stella, his pregnant wife. And the violence is on full display; even the next day, Stella’s blood is still splattered across the fridge.
A Streetcar Named Desire is often referred to as a story of mental illness or simply the tragedy of an individual woman, but this production unflinchingly emphasizes the domestic violence that was considered the norm at that time and in that culture. Eunice and Steve (Sarah-Jane Potts and Mark Letheren), the Kowalski’s upstairs neighbors, are also engaged in a relationship that frequents both impassioned fighting and passionate lovemaking, and which makes Eunice’s reassurances to Stella that she has done the right thing at the conclusion of the play even more disturbing. And Stella’s seemingly casual acceptance of Stanley’s violence, even when faced with increasingly hysterical questioning by Blanche, saying it’s “not a big deal” and that she’s not in anything she wants to get out of, is in sharp contrast to the dark and disturbing scene the night before.
Played with natural ease by Vanessa Kirby, Stella is a compelling character in this production. We first see her lying aimlessly on her bed, only coming to life when Stanley yells to her from the street. Her excited request to watch her husband bowl, and her statement that her friends are Stanley’s friends, emphasize how little autonomy Stella has in her own life. And that’s just how Stanley likes it. It’s not a surprise when we find Stella literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, while Blanche continues to dress in Victoria Behr’s tight-fitted, short costumes that stand out on the white set, while Jon Clark’s lighting design, Paul Arditti’s sound design and music by Alex Baranowski enhance the abrupt and jarring nature of the play.
Women’s lack of autonomy is extremely poignant in this Streetcar, a play that was first produced in 1947. Even if Blanche had been in possession of money, as an unmarried woman, she wouldn’t have been able to use it to establish a life of her own. Women could not take out a credit card of their own until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal to refuse a credit card to a woman based on her gender; before then banks required single, widowed or divorced women to bring a man along to cosign any credit application, regardless of their income.
And even if Blanche had been able to find work, she could have been fired for any reason; in 1969 Colgate-Palmolive laid women off from their jobs rather than put them in physical work, “to protect our ladies.” The subsequent lawsuit, Bowe vs Colgate-Palmolive, ruled that physical labor could not be restricted only to men. And if Blanche had married someone, even if she had property the property would then be owned by the man. It wasn’t until Kirchberg v Feenstra, in 1981, that a husband was told he didn’t have the right to unilaterally take out a second mortgage on property held jointly with his wife. What Stella says is true: Blanche has nowhere to go.
But go she does, led off the set and through the theater in a slow, solemn march that closely resembles a funeral march. But we know that the vital parts of Blanche had died long ago.