On the grounds of persistence alone, Jessica Lange would deserve applause for returning to the role of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Nearly five years ago she made her Broadway debut in the same part, was mostly panned — though not by Variety — and chose to come to London in a different production to see whether she might at last ride a “Streetcar” named success. Has she managed that? Peter Hall’s staging prompts a qualified yes, though about Lange’s performance I have few qualifications. Hers is a touching, truthful, at times almost scarily open Blanche, as full of contradictions as Tennessee Williams’ play itself.
That she is a relative stage novice — prior to Broadway she had trod the boards briefly in Paris and in North Carolina summer stock — redoubles Lange’s achievement. Here is an artist willing to stretch a talent she clearly trusts in a largely new medium; Williams himself, one feels, would have been admiring.
She and her director make a clever match, and one can imagine each drawing the best from the other. Not quite a decade ago Hall launched his West End company with “Orpheus Descending,” a rarely seen Williams play that remains one of Hall’s finest achievements. His next venture, Dustin Hoffman in “The Merchant of Venice,” showed a willingness to work with movie stars that might have made some of his colleagues, well, blanch. In the case of “Streetcar,” Hall has brought a personal knowledge of the author to Williams’ most harrowing play. The result is a high-Gothic staging suspended — like the fragile Blanche — between reverie (the DuBois ancestral home wasn’t called “Belle Reve” for nothing) and nightmare, with Lange’s Blanche moving from desire toward a living death as the streetcar in her mind runs tragically off its tracks.
Those who saw “Orpheus” will find that sound plays as crucial a role here, with the aid of Matt McKenzie’s sound design and Stephen Edwards’ original music and sound score. This “Streetcar” includes the ambient noise of a trolley car that seems forever to be bearing down on Blanche, between bursts of the Varsouviana that accompany her ongoing remorse at the suicide of her young homosexual husband. On a William Dudley set paying homage to Jo Mielziner’s tiered original, circular staircase included, Simon Corder’s shadowy lighting shows up Blanche’s supposed refuge as a chamber of horrors: Reeling around sister Stella’s New Orleans home in her “crazy crown,” she’s a dethroned queen to brother-in-law Stanley’s self-proclaimed “king.”
Their mating dance, of course, lies at the heart of “Streetcar,” as the two move toward and away from each other in an uneasy ritual mirroring Williams’ attraction to a brute animalism he found, on another level, repulsive. (Announcing that she is “sort of thrilled” by Stanley’s machismo, Stella unexpectedly recalls an earlier heroine of the American theater who willingly gives herself over to an abusive partner — Julie Jordan in “Carousel,” which premiered two years prior to “Streetcar.”) And it is in Blanche and Stanley’s awkward yet necessarily electric erotic tango that this “Streetcar,” like Gregory Mosher’s Broadway one before it, goes most damagingly awry. One day, if she persists still further, Lange will get the Stanley she deserves.
On Broadway, Alec Baldwin took on the Brando mantle with a bared torso and sustained jocularity as if his Huey Long-quoting “Polack” were a huge Polish joke. Toby Stephens in London takes the role more seriously, but he is at so many removes from the part that one ends up feeling faintly embarrassed for him. It’s not enough to swagger around the stage in and out of a T-shirt, thumb tucked in the top of a pair of jeans, to suggest the ruinous allure of a Stanley who must lash out before he himself is destroyed. “What I am is 100% American,” cries Stanley, thereby giving Stephens the lie. Working overtime with technique but not much empathy, the youthful actor suggests a talented English drama student giving the role his best shot, not a damaged poet trapped in his role as pugilist.
The supporting roles are far better served than they last were in New York. Imogen Stubbs is a surprisingly effective Stella, earthy and playful one minute, self-reproachful the next; her closing “What have I done to my sister?,” as she batters herself with her fists in a lashing one feels she knows from her husband, marks a moving confession of impotence from a woman in thrall to an attraction she can barely articulate. The excellent Christian Burgess conveys both Mitch’s tenderness toward Blanche and his feeling of profound betrayal once he realizes that the woman whom he intends to save has long ago (by society, anyway) been damned. There’s real pain to the scene in which — his trust violated — Mitch holds Blanche up to the light, as if the harsh glare might expose the truth behind her fluttery carapace of lies.
Lange, for her part, presents an ever-shifting Blanche, intelligent and willful, vulnerable and self-deluded. The actress gets a knowing laugh from the house at Blanche’s first sight of the Kowalskis’ liquor, only to induce a hush later on as she remembers her students’ “first discovery of love as if no one had ever known it before.” Cannily throwing away some of the play’s most-quoted lines — “Streetcar” is a living and breathing drama, not a walking book of Familiar Quotations — she is a memorable protector of a sister who doesn’t want protection, even as Blanche fails to safeguard what matters most: herself.
Hands forever in midair, her voice swooping up in a sudden infectious laugh, this Blanche retains the coquette’s charm to the end as she tries to silence the din of memory and fear rattling about within her head. By the time of her removal to the institution, acknowledging cathedral bells as “the only clean thing in the quarter,” she lays bare a shattered psyche no amount of della Robbia blue can keep unsullied in a catharsis that, as it must, leaves the audience feeling cleansed.