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Stage Door: A Streetcar Named Desire

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"A woman's charms are 50% illusion," says Blanche DuBois in the classic play A Streetcar Named Desire. But Cate Blanchett's bravura performance of the fragile, overdramatic Southern belle in Tennessee Williams' masterpiece is the real deal. The current revival at BAM, through Dec. 20, is a shattering production, stripped to essentials.

The part of Blanche is the role of a lifetime -- and most of us know her from watching the Oscar-winning Vivien Leigh battle Marlon Brando as her brutish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. However, each generation renews its poetry and despair and this production, which originated at the Sydney Theatre Company, where Blanchett and husband Andrew Upton are the artistic directors, is notable on two fronts.

First, this is Blanchett's show. From the moment she steps on stage, her nerves shot, her dignity held together by fierce illusion, our eyes never leave her. Director Liv Ullmann keeps the focus on Blanche -- even when the action shifts elsewhere.

Second, while the setting is post-war New Orleans, it's sans the ornate latticework or other symbols of a decaying French Quarter. Ralph Myers' design and Nick Schlieper's lighting are reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting; the sickly pink walls of sister Stella (Robin McLeavy) and Stanley's (Joel Edgerton) apartment evoke American poverty, rather than fading Southern gentility. That choice is artistically problematic. The Southern setting is not incidental to the plot; it's an unspoken character in the play and strikingly missing.

However, fading is the operative notion here.

Blanche and Stella, heirs to Belle Reve, the family's Mississippi plantation, have lost their inheritance due to male debauchery and illness. Stella, who left home years ago, has, like Stanley, chosen lust over tenderness, animal instincts over artistic pursuits. By contrast, Blanche, a former English teacher, exclaims: "I don't want realism. I want magic!" But no conjurer can quell her loneliness or return the first bloom of youthful allure. She's acutely aware that her fabled sexual prowess is aging -- and survival depends on finding any suitable man to rescue her.

Unlike Stella, Blanche mourns the loss of civility and the family home, which, alongside dodgy liaisons, have forced her to the French Quarter. Here, in the two-room flat of her "executioner," streetwise Stanley and a slatternly Stella grunt out their existence, enduring blows and brutal desire in equal measure.

It's here that Blanche's madness will manifest, though Stella's marriage is viewed as a form of madness by Blanche. Williams has erected a striking polarity: Stanley and his "apes" will survive; Blanche, sorely in need of understanding and help, will be devoured by their cruelty and blindness. Even Mitch (Tim Richards), Blanche's seemingly sweet but pawing beau, will fail her at the critical hour.

Blanche can only "depend on the kindness of strangers," another illusion in Williams' arsenal of betrayals. In this brave new American world, might makes right. Streetcar is the playwright's eulogy for ravaged beauty -- and while it takes Ullmann time to locate, her cast rises to the challenge. Edgerton's beefy Stanley has a menacing, occasionally magnetic presence, while McLeavy's Stella is competent rather than noteworthy. Still, this is Blanchett's moment -- and she makes the most of it.