Thursday 20 June 2024

A Streetcar Named Desire, Free-Rain Theatre, ACT Hub, 19-29 June

 (photo by Jane Duong)

Tennessee Williams' 1947 play is a piece that's probably always going to be relevant, alas - dealing with a relationship where lust and domestic abuse are very much intermingled, and the intervention of a family member with her own dangerous past intruding on the present. It's a long play (in this production it wanders near the 3 hour mark) but justifies that length with dense character studies of four leads all caught up between their desires for escape and their fears of what that escape might mean. This is the second production I've seen in a year (after seeing a preview of the production with Sheridan Harbridge playing Blanche at the Old Fitz last year), and it's a great text to return to for a deep dive and examination. 

Primary among the cast is Amy Kowalczuk as Blanche - entering the stage and seizing attention, slightly overdressed for the working-class New Orleans two-room apartment she's in, and clearly self-medicating with alcohol to avoid past traumas. It's a performance that doesn't oversell the damage Blanche has suffered - she's just on the edge of holding on, reorienting herself constantly to keep herself in check, letting the tension bubble under for most of the play rather than releasing it. It's a role that requires her to move between snobbishness, self-righteousness, melancholy, joy, viciousness, outrage, protectiveness, fear and finally catatonia, and she strikes every note perfectly. 

Alex Hoskison matches her as Stanley - this is a role wildly different from what he gave us in February in his monologue in "Queers", but whereas that role was delicate and sensitive, Stanley is earthy, practical and assertive - a simple man with rage under the surface, as he seeks to repel what he sees as Blanche's invasion on his property - alienating him against his wife, her barbs against his lack of couth, and his pride at not being taken advantage of. In the early stages of the play he sells Stanley as a dumb-guy-who-thinks-he's-smart kicking out at those around him who he can physically dominate, either through sex with his wife or through physical intimidation with the men around him. 

Meaghen Stewart as Stella has the challenge of intervening between the two of them - forgiving and protective of her sister but equally in thrall of her husband - the lust between the two of them is palpable as hell, but so is the warmth between the sisters. She gives the character her own integrity - even as we know that her devotion to her husband is as big a delusion as any that Blanche suffers from, we still feel what draws them together. 

Lachlan Ruffy makes a long-awaited return to Canberra stages for the first time in a fully-rehearsed play since 2018's "Switzerland", playing the gentle Mitch who turns out to be not quite the pushover he appears - there's real chemistry between him and Kowalczuk as she enthralls him, and there's a danger in the breakup scene as he shares his contempt for her then realises how close to the edge he's going and consciously steps back. His despair in the final scene is palpable.

Elsewhere the cast seizes small moments, from Sarah Hull's supportive Eunice going through her own issues upstairs of the apartment, Tim Stiles' presence as another bullish man sharing racist jokes at poker and enacting his own messy relationship dynamics at the edge of the story to the gentle reassuring presence of David Bennett at the end of the play. 

There are some issues with details at the edge of the play - Blanche's collapible bed never moves from its closed position onstage, scene transitions are a little clunky and the more surreal moments near the end of the play don't entirely feel set up or followed through. But at its core this is a strong production of a classic,  led by strong performances at the centre. 

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