Watching “A Streetcar Named Desire,” you find yourself longing for a touch of Blanche DuBois’ sweet, deluded magic — a time of cotillions and midnight swims at the lake, jasmine perfume and summer furs pinned with silk violets.
Blanche (Cate Blanchett) is a fragile remnant of a fanciful plantation-era South that may never had existed in the first place. She doesn’t stand a chance of surviving when she enters her sister Stella’s (Robin McLeavy) cramped New Orleans apartment and is dropped into her and husband Stanley Kowalski’s (Joel Edgerton) postwar, blue-collar and proudly red, white and blue world of poker games, bottles of beer, bowling and brawling — which is usually followed by noisy make-up sex.
Blanche, in her gossamer Lost Era frocks and antebellum mannerisms, doesn’t so much haunt the apartment as hold it hostage, turning Stanley’s happily stag den of iniquity into a place of spilled powder and bourbon, and twilight lighting.
The volatile Stanley pops a cork when the balance of power shifts from masculine to feminine. He wants to rule the roost again, and he regains control in a cruel, ham-fisted way that has ramifications far beyond getting rid of a lingering houseguest.
Miss Blanchett’s outsized portrayal of Blanche does not much resemble the flitty, doomed moth Tennessee Williams had in mind when he wrote the character in 1947. Trembling and twitching from the first moment we see her, Miss Blanchett’s Blanche is a ravaged portrait of mental illness, alcoholism and dysfunctional sexuality.
As directed (one wonders, overdirected) by Liv Ullmann, Miss Blanchett acts up a storm, but fails to inhabit the character or make you see beyond histrionic technique. As a result, you never sympathize with Blanche or fall under her faded spell. In this gritty production, you don’t get a sense of Blanche’s humor and charm — butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but it’s a butter that is slightly turned with sarcastic wit. Along with the humor, the languid poetry of Mr. Williams’ play is also lost.
In fact, you feel sorry for Stanley for having to put up with her and for his buddy Mitch (Tim Richards) for enduring her drunken, clingy attentions. Mr. Edgerton’s braying, edgy portrayal of Stanley shows him not as a hulking brute, but a man confounded by frustration that his home and his wife do not belong to him anymore. Similarly, Miss McLeavy contributes an assured and strong Stella, a woman lost in sexual thrall, but also a smart survivor who sees her future is with Stanley and not with the South represented by Blanche.
A character as magnificent as Blanche DuBois should not exit shuffling off to the loony bin barefoot and clad in a slip and old shawl. This production of “Streetcar” is too literal and harsh — a naked light bulb crying out for the forgiving light of a Chinese paper lantern.
WHAT: “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams
WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Nov. 21
TICKETS: The run is sold out; call the box office for availability.
WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
• Jayne Blanchard can be reached at .