Toronto Review: "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Soulpepper Theatre

Photo: Dahlia Katz / Gregory Prest as Mitch / Amy Rutherford as Blanche

Photo: Dahlia Katz / Gregory Prest as Mitch / Amy Rutherford as Blanche

  • Dave Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic

A bold and definitive production of A Streetcar Named Desire recently opened at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.  A theatrical institution, Streetcar is one of Williams’ signature pieces compelling an audience to confront the issues of the fragile and the hostile in our society.  The cast and creative crew have embraced this searing story with the same fulsome passion with which it was written.  Director Weyni Mengesha must certainly have circled, at least twice, these instructions from Williams’ original writing:  “In this part of New Orleans you are practically always just around the corner, or a few doors down the street, from a tinny piano being played with the infatuated fluency of brown fingers.”  Ms. Mengesha seized the music motif by both lapels and infused it into the production.  It was not a supplement – it was a part of the story!

Moment one:  As the poker game quickly rages, a jazz group appears with vigour just above the scene.  Jazz and blues and percussion and brass break out in gleeful fun and roar their way into the game.  Drumbeats mock the banging of beer cans – plaintiff notes resonate with scraping chairs and foul language.  The Quarter is not that big and the music is everywhere.  Moment two:  As Blanche’s story descends and Stanley’s ugliness grows, a jazz parade filters through the audience bringing New Orleans directly into our laps.  Washboards and trombones cut through the growing horror as the community celebrates a night out.  The music is rich and compelling – it could have been a funeral procession just as much as a bridal feast.  Moment three:  the stage in the air again appears above the scene as madness begins to consume Blanche.  “Merrily We Roll Along” is playful and rhythmic until it, by degrees, becomes discordant and awkward and angry, practically seeking Blanche’s attention with its cacophony.

Ms. Mengesha should be celebrated for this enhanced musical vision.  Brilliant leadership from Mike Ross and the talents of every musician elevated this production.  This band electrified the theatre.

Oh yes – there was acting too!

Amy Rutherford as Blanche Dubois was superb.  Hamlet-like heavy lifting seemed natural and controlled.  Playing the former belle whose southern charm has plummeted along with the family fortune, Ms. Rutherford displays a wide range of emotions and temper necessary for the complex role.  Forced to move in with her sister and brutish brother-in-law, Blanche must face stinging realities in the less than demure lifestyle of the quarter.  Her character ranges from bristling pride to simpering provocateur – her opening speeches about Belle Reve show her straight-backed and strong.  As she weakens, she is all shoulders and elbows, sultry and pathetic.  Ms. Rutherford creates a laboured smile that has a glint of deep horror.  Mac Fyfe, as Stanley Kowalski, sharply contrasts her as the Caliban to her broken Ariel.  But his acting is equally powerful – lumbering and gruff, Mr. Fyfe also displays range as his brutality momentarily melts as Stella’s husband. 

Stella, played with brilliant pride by Leah Doz, creates the role of host in the seedy downtown tenement.  She is often firm and calm in the midst of chaos.  Finger wagging is usually avoided on stage, but she does a strong digital wave in her brilliant “I’m not in anything I want out of” speech.  The fourth main character, Mitch, is performed by Gregory Prest.  Blanche’s only realistic lifeline, the potential boyfriend quickly melts away as he discovers a battery of faults and a background of mendacity.  The strong performance wavers from the mild sensitive boy with mother to something closer to the barbaric poker players that Blanche, unwittingly, pushes him back towards.

Kimberley Purtell, as lighting director, clearly has allied carefully with set designer, Lorenzo Savoini.  Together, they create a large space that is menaced with metallic like corrugation where slats of light rush in and out creating a dangerous and mysterious mood.  The rape scene seemed oddly out of touch – it is to be a fatalistic moment, but the wash of harsh light appeared more like an airport scene. 

Soulpepper’s rendition is a careening tsunami.  It begins with a joyous peach sun hat and drifts unyielding into madness.  It is a production that relies on magnificent acting, but also on sound such as the rhythm of streetcar tracks or the scraping of curtain rings on bare iron.  It also celebrates the music that survives human calamity.