Credit: Teddy Wolff

For actresses in theater, Blanche DuBois is like a female version of Hamlet and Willy Loman and Uncle Vanya, all crammed together and going nuts in a tiny, hot New Orleans apartment. Tennessee Williams’ blasted heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire (“As you may have noticed,” she says early on, “I’m not very well”) is a role that requires the performer to walk the tightrope without a net — or not at all. But what Gillian Anderson is doing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn right now (through June 4) is not simply walking a tightrope without a net. Anderson is up on the high wire in five-inch heels, with a bottle of booze in one hand and a feather boa in the other, taunting gravity with every gesture to bring her crashing to the ground.

Benedict Andrews’ daring production of Streetcar (carried over from its acclaimed 2014 staging at London’s Young Vic) is decidedly not a large-scale Broadway endeavor. The play is performed intimately in the round and the stage is a narrow rectangle, accurately simulating the cheap Elysian Fields studio where young Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) lives with her animalistic husband Stanley (Ben Foster). Blanche (Anderson), Stella’s older sister, arrives unexpectedly in the first scene, desperately needing a place to stay but snobbish about the living conditions that she sees before her.

When she steps through the door, the stage begins glacially rotating. It takes about five minutes for the entire apartment to make one full revolution, and the effect is admittedly self-conscious and a bit dizzying — but it turns the audience into 360-degree voyeurs. The apartment is built without walls and so we are always aware of each person’s place within it, and of our fellow audience members on the other side of the theater, turning their heads to steal a better view. Short of allowing us to join the characters on stage, the technique is astonishingly immersive. And cinematic, as well: Our eyes becomes lenses for our own personal movie, panning along the set and giving us a fresh angle, with each passing moment on the primal forces playing out on stage.

And what follows, of course, is the dazzling three-hour death march of Williams’ most famous drama. Blanche, who never gives her age even when she asked, initially flirts with Stanley but is ultimately destroyed by him in a jungle war, you could say, between an ape and a snake. Andrews weaves in modern touches, such as a cordless telephone and Louis Vuitton luggage and boxer briefs, and pumps the scene transitions with an amazing soundtrack of haunting tunes, including Cat Power’s “Troubled Waters” and PJ Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love.” One remarkable scene change, during which the show’s entire company appears to clean up the apartment after one of Stanley’s abusive freakouts, is scored to the sensual ache of Chris Issak’s “Wicked Games,” with its Streetcar-perfect backup lyric, “This world is only gonna break your heart.”

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Elia Kazan’s inaugural production of Streetcar in 1947 (and its history-altering film version four years later) emphasized the raw, sexual allure of Stanley, played in both cases by the muscle-shirt-ripping Marlon Brando. Here, as in many subsequent versions of the play, Blanche is the focus of our sympathy. Foster, who seems to have mixed Cross Fit with Häagen-Dazs in his prep for Stanley, unselfishly resists the charismatic impulses of the part, playing him more as a banal slob. And that allows the transcendence and meaning of Anderson’s performance as Blanche to dominate. “No one was as tender and trusting as she was,” Stella tells Stanley at one point. “And people like you forced her to change.”

And Anderson gives abundant life to that line. Not for a second do we doubt that Blanche once was a smooth charmer, before the light was snuffed out of her. Magnificent as Vivian Leigh is in the Streetcar film, she was a ghostly shell, never quite able to laugh at herself. But Anderson knows that Blanche was once the smartest person in the room. She delivers the famous “He’s an ape!” monologue about Stanley with a faded sense of comic exuberance — and we can easily imagine the woman who some years earlier would have delivered those same lines with just the right amount of deftness and sarcasm, so that they stung with truth instead of drunken maliciousness.

Anderson’s Blanche DuBois is such a real creation that you might be tempted to check Wikipedia to find out what eventually happened to her after the play’s ending. The actress, at 47, has admitted that she probably could not have played Blanche when she was younger. (Leigh was 35 when she appeared in the movie.) The role requires a certain amount of disappointment and pain and winking good-humor — plus, the public still thinking that you are Dana Scully from The X-Files — to pull off with this much incandescent pathos. During one point of the curtain call at the end of Streetcar, all the other performers exit the stage; Anderson remains all alone. And the sonic thunder of applause that comes from the audience should leave her no doubt, now or ever again, that she can always rely on the kindness of strangers. A

A Streetcar Named Desire
  • Movie
  • 122 minutes