Soulpepper’s new Streetcar Named Desire is a revelation

Weyni Mengesha directs a bold, visceral, game-changing production of the Tennessee Williams classic


A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Runs to October 27. $38-$98. 416-866-8666, soulpepper.ca. Rating: NNNNN


Whether you’ve seen it staged before, have only watched the (slightly censored) film version or merely recognize lines like “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” from pop culture, you need to hop onto A Streetcar Named Desire.

Directed by Soulpepper’s new artistic director Weyni Mengesha, this production of the Tennessee Williams classic is, quite simply, a revelation. And it has something to offer everyone. 

Mengesha’s bold, game-changing version announces itself in the opening moments, as fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford) arrives in a clanging, noisy New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella (Leah Doz) and her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Mac Fyfe) in their cramped two-room apartment. 

Blanche is staying an unspecified amount of time – the family’s plantation, Belle Reve (or beautiful dream), has been sold – but her old-fashioned, genteel ideas about comfort and graciousness contrast with Stanley’s earthy, practical approach to life. Soon Stanley discovers the brutal truth behind Blanche’s flight, and their ensuing battle becomes the driving force of the play. 

Mengesha’s handling of the contrasts between poetry and realism is effective without ever seeming overdone. The prelude to Stanley and his buddies’ poker game becomes a frenzied ballet of macho posturing, underscored with a literal jazz number sung by company member SATE and others. Mike Ross’s musical direction evokes New Orleans effortlessly.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set is dominated by walls of aluminum siding, suggesting factories or garages. These walls occasionally slide open to reveal surprises, the surfaces reverberating in the play’s most dramatic moments to riff on the resonant title. (Debashis Sinha is the sound designer.)

And Blanche’s bittersweet memories of her past are accompanied by a music-box motif that never feels contrived.

This is one of the few shows I’ve seen where if all the dialogue were stripped from the play and we were left with lighting (by Kimberly Purtell), music and sound, audiences would still understand the characters and their actions. 

Ah, but what performances! Gregory Prest’s Mitch, who’s initially drawn to Blanche, is charming in his clumsy, bumbling awkwardness, and then terrifying when he learns the truth. Akosua Amo-Adem and Lindsay Owen Pierre create drama out of bickering neighbours Eunice and Steve. And Doz, while she could add more shading to her Stella, is sincere and moving in her character’s struggle between love for her sister and her man. 

Fyfe’s Stanley is crafty and vital, always aware of his physical prowess and the connection between him and his wife. His bellowing of the play’s most famous line is shot through with various emotions, not least abuser’s guilt.

Rutherford makes you marvel at every aspect of Blanche: her charm, pathos, vanity, desire and, perhaps most of all, her loneliness. 

A not-to-be-missed production.

@glennsumi

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