By Madonna Hernandez
Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire is a complicated and compelling glimpse of the descent into madness of one woman: Blanche Dubois. The play is currently running until June at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge’s waterfront park. The venue is quintessentially Brooklyn. Its industrial, brick facade and no-frills aesthetics compliment the grittyness of Williams’ play.
Set in New Orleans in the early 20th century, this production is a thoroughly modern take with furniture straight from Ikea and a pulsing techno soundtrack. It’s all very hipster chic. The action is on a constantly rotating circular stage, which isn’t as vertigo inducing as it sounds. The moving stage, quite literally and figuratively, keeps the action constant so that it never feels static.
The play begins with the arrival of Blanche at the home of her sister, Stella, a home she shares with her brutish husband, Stanley. She is there due to the loss of both the sisters’ family estate and Blanches’ teaching job. Her arrival causes tension in the household. As the action unfolds, Blanche is revealed to be a duplicitous (and charming) emotional wreck, Stanley is revealed to be a controlling alpha male with a short temper and Stella is the passive go-between who is accepting of it all. Stanley and Blanche are diametrically opposed, growing to simultaneously detest and perhaps desire each other too. Stanley becomes angry and suspicious of Blanche. Blanche becomes weery of her sister’s attachment to the volatile Stanley.
Blanche does carry many secrets, including that of her failed marriage to a gay man and her sexual promiscuity. But she masks her secrets under a veil of fancy clothing and charming allure. Blanche is a tragic figure to say the least. She is equal parts victim and perpetrator of her own demise which makes her downfall all the more engaging.
In the hands of a lesser actor, Blanche could be an annoying mess. She could be played as a caricature: over the top, pushy and dramatic. Gillian Anderson is not that lesser actor. Blanche seems like a role she was born to play. She’s effortlessly charismatic, funny, and incredibly convincing as a woman teetering on the edge of sanity. She is fascinating to watch, commands all the scenes she’s in and masters Blanche’s voluminous and never ending dialogue with relative ease. Ben Foster, as Stanley, achieves the right balance of sheer masculinity and scary unpredictability. Vanessa Kirby as Stella provides a warmth that grounds the play. The other actors, set pieces, scene changes and crew work seamlessly as well. The strong performances, especially by Gillian Anderson, carried real weight and emotional resonance. It left me feeling exhausted. But isn’t that what we want? Or maybe not. As Blanche says: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”