by Lynn on June 19, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont. Runs until July 7, 2024.

NOTE: This is a remount of the 2019 Soulpepper production with the same creatives and with a few cast changes. The review will repeat those aspects that are pertinent and expand on areas worth reflection.  

Written by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Weyni Mengesha

Set by Lorenzo Savoini

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Costumes by Rachel Forbes

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Cast: Divine Brown

Oliver Dennis

Shakura Dickson

Mac Fyfe

Kaleb Horn

Sebastian Marziali

Lindsay Owen Pierre

Gregory Prest

Amy Rutherford

Ordena Stephens-Thompson

A gripping production with some moments that are revelatory.

The Story. Fragile-minded, genteel Blanche DuBois comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley. Her nerves are frazzled. She’s been let go of her job as a teacher and she needs comfort.  She yearns for the glory days of her past when the family owned a stately plantation in Mississippi, now gone. What she finds in New Orleans is noise, confusion, the cacophony and oppression of close quarters and Stanley who doesn’t hide his contempt of her.

The Production. Director, Weyni Mengesha has envisioned a place that is alive with the noise of people living in close quarters and sometimes are short tempered about it. People bellow instead of talk. Fights break out at a simple poker game because people are impatient to win. It’s a place sticky with heat and pulsing with music. A band appears occasionally in a section of Lorenzo Savoini’s simple set. Stella (Shakura Dickson) and Stanley (Mac Fyfe) live in a tiny one bedroom apartment. A curtain separates the bedroom from the kitchen. Blanche (Amy Rutherford) will sleep on a cot in the kitchen. The bathroom is off the bedroom.  Outside Stella and Stanley’s apartment is an open space with a staircase that leads up to the second level and another apartment where Eunice (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) and her husband Steve (Lindsay Owen Pierre) live.

Playwright Tennessee Williams immediately sets up the world into which Blanche enters, which is so far and away from what she is used to. Stanley bellows Stella’s name. She tells him not to holler at her. Then he yells “Catch” and hurls a package at her saying, “Meat,” which she catches and laughs. It’s primal.

Blanche enters alone pulling her suitcase after her. She is dressed in a flowing dress and wide brimmed hat (kudos to Rachel Forbes for the costumes). The dingy, squalid surroundings appall her. She is used to a more refined, genteel world, at least in her imagination and memory. Her expectations will be challenged and diminished as the play goes on. She is there for several months, living as if Stella and Stanley are there to serve her. Blanche sneaks his liquor. She takes long baths to calm her nerves which always need calming, disrupting their routine as well. It’s to the credit of this production that we wonder how the three managed to stand each other for that long.

Sex is central to this production. As Blanche, Amy Rutherford has an almost chaste sexuality. We know she’s had a ‘past.’ never stops flirting and toying ‘innocently’ with men, especially young ones. Her voice is a southern purr. Her manner is genteel. Some men such as the innocent Mitch (a wonderful, understated performance by Gregory Prest) and the awkward Young Collector (a lovely performance by Kaleb Horn but please speak up—we need to hear you, and that goes for many others on that stage–PLEASE SPEAK UP AND SPEAK CLEARLY) are either captivated or unsettled by Blanche.

Stanley is another matter. As Stanley, Mac Fyfe plays him as he slowly boils at being toyed with and ‘played’ by Blanche. He is not captivated. He’s fed up and he’s going to teach her a lesson. Stanley is a sexual animal too but is more instinctive and predatory. Emotions have run high in that household and goes off the rails at Stanley’s poker game. He hits Stella. She runs out up the stairs to Eunice’s. Stanley stands at the bottom of the stairs and bellows Stella’s name in that most famous of scenes from the play. Over the years that bellow of “STELLA” has lost its meaning, certainly after the film of the play in which Marlon Brando played Stanley. It’s almost a joke. Until now.

Mac Fyfe bellows the name and it’s full of Stanley’s despair that he might lose her, regret that he’s gone too far and emotional pain from his guts. It sounds like an animal caught in a trap in the woods. In her turn Stella, played with lively sexuality by Shakura Dickson, comes out of Eunice’s apartment and rather than rushing down the stairs into Stanley’s arms full of forgiveness, she walks down slowly, seriously making him wait, and she leads with her hips. She’s won. She’s in control. She better than her sister, knows ‘how to play’ Stanley. That scene alone is devastating and thrilling.

Director Weyni Mengesha has tweaked the scene when Stanley and Blanche have their reconning—it’s sudden, brutish and brilliant.

Stanley and Stella can’t live without each other. But when Blanche obviously tells Stella what Stanley did to her, Stella can’t/won’t believe it. She tells Eunice she could not live with him if that is the case. But when Blanche is lead off by a Doctor and his nurse because her fragile mind has snapped it’s Stella who reacts with soul-crushing despair. Stanley holds her back, trying to comfort her. And in that wonderful directing and playing of the scene we know that Stella knows the truth of what happened.

Devastating and terrific production.

Comment. Director Weyni Mengesha has read the play through her lens. She believes that Stella left the plantation in Mississippi and all its airs and attitudes and came to New Orleans, Louisiana for a different life and outlook. She moved into the crowded, raucous, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural French Quarter with her robust, sexually driven, macho husband Stanley Kowalski. He is as far away from the imagined genteel manner of Blanche’s ideal as you can get. It’s interesting that Stella would also contend with Stanley’s occasional violence to her to be with him. For various reasons, Weyni Mengesha believes that Stella is Black and so has cast Shakura Dickson in the roll. Sounds reasonable.

Produced by Soulpepper

Opened: June 18, 2024.

Closes: July 7, 2024.

Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes. (1 intermission)

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