We know from the start that something is different from Ralph Myers' set. No attempt is made to suggest the architectural charm of New Orleans. Stanley and Stella's flat, oppressed by an overhanging gray cinderblock wall, emphasizes squalor and poverty. This is the neighborhood and flat as Blanche sees them, not as they are. Then, when Cate Blanchett's Blanche first arrives, she is far more jittery and distressed than usual. This Blanche can barely hold it together. One worries Blanchett will have no place to go with the character, but this proves unfounded. The actor uses the desperation to her advantage as Blanche boldly employs every trick in her arsenal to get what she wants, executing quicksilver transitions between moods and tactics with consummate ability. But the inexorable tragedy of Blanche's destruction looms right from the start, and we watch helplessly as she rushes toward it. It's a bravura turn with scene after memorable scene, climaxing in a final one of such startling power that it disturbs in ways it never has before. Blanchett, quite simply, is brilliant.
Ullmann also ratchets up the brutish behavior of Stanley and his poker-playing cohorts. Again, it's how they appear to Blanche. But that doesn't mean Joel Edgerton's excellent Stanley is forced into caricature. Showing remarkable range and nuance, Edgerton takes risks left and right, including in his iconic "Stelllaaa!" moment. This Stella doesn't return to the husband who has just beaten her due to his sexual magnetism—though Edgerton offers plenty of that—or his howling anguish. Edgerton's Stanley crumbles like a small, broken boy, and it's his naked vulnerability that does the trick. As Stella, Robin McLeavy offers a whole new approach. She's not a slumming Southern lady; she's a feisty white-trash girl who's more comfortable here than she likely ever was with Blanche at Belle Reve. The charismatic McLeavy puts Stella's growing exasperation with both her sister and her husband front and center, but there's never any doubt she's right where she belongs.
Tim Richards' Mitch seems gentlemanly more due to his inarticulateness than to intellect or kindness. It makes his and Blanche's relationship seem even more of a hopeless mismatch, bringing added poignancy to the desperation each feels to find a partner. When Mitch finally rejects and humiliates Blanche, the encounter is more dangerous than ever; his anguish at her destruction is shot through with desolation.
Mandy McElhinney and Michael Denkha make a fine pair of battling upstairs neighbors, endowing Eunice and Steve with a strong sexual bond and a rich emotional life. Morgan David Jones makes the most of his newspaper boy, who knows what's on Blanche's mind almost as soon as she does and hopes she'll succeed while wishing she won't.
Ullmann's ultimate and probably most controversial reinvention is to have Blanche, in the last moment, submit to Stanley's rape. I doubt a male director could have gotten away with the choice, but Blanchett makes the most of it: It's almost unbearable to watch as Blanche collaborates in what she knows is her ultimate destruction. Blanchett makes it penance for the act of deliberate cruelty Blanche perpetrated on her young husband, which lead to his suicide. And that's what Ullmann's "Streetcar" is all about: Deliberate cruelty is, indeed, unforgivable.
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn, NYC. Dec. 1–20. Tue.–Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.(718) 636-4100 or www.bam.org. Casting by Serena Hill.