(Peter Marks's article appeared November 2 in the Washington Post.)


Blanchett fires 'Streetcar's' eternal combustion engine


If Cate Blanchett's nerve-shattering turn as Blanche DuBois doesn't knock the wind out of you, then there is nothing on a stage that can blow you away. What Blanchett achieves in the Sydney Theatre Company's revelatory revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" amounts to a truly great portrayal — certainly the most heartbreaking Blanche I've ever experienced.

It's a shame that the 24-performance run in the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, its U.S. premiere, is completely sold out. This is the kind of evening you want to urge people to see, to remind them of theater's illuminating range, its ability to force you out of your resistant natural skepticism, to assess, reflect and feel.

I confess that in the final scene of the 3-hour 15-minute production — when Blanchett's spectral Blanche is stripped so entirely of the sustaining illusions of life that she looks as if all her blood's been drained away — I lost it. In the harrowing moment before the asylum doctors lead Blanche away, she makes a frantic last break for it, running and hiding under the bed in Stella and Stanley's room. Watching as Blanchett at last limply submits (over the wrenching sobs of erstwhile beau Mitch), you grasp fully the inevitability of Blanche's demise: She has been lost since a day long ago in her native Mississippi, where the horrific end to an intense, impossible love spurred her to a self-induced doom.

The Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann, renowned for her collaborations with the director (and father of her child) Ingmar Bergman on some of his most important films, was recruited to direct Tennessee Williams's seminal tragedy for its debut in Sydney in September. As she finds in the piece both poetry and unexpected humor, Ullmann proves a formidable hire. Her stark approach — Stella's dingy apartment, with its bare light bulbs and chipped tiles, has rarely appeared so cramped and shabby — departs from some other productions of "Streetcar" in their attempts to embroider the play with the intoxicating colors of New Orleans in the 1940s.

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