Tennessee Williams’ Tragic Heroine

Natasha Richardson speaks about playing one of the iconic female roles in American theater

BLANCHE: Yes, swine! Swine! And I’m thinking not only of you, but of your friend, Mr. Mitchell. He came to see me tonight. He dared to come here in his work clothes! And to repeat slander to me, vicious stories that he had gotten from you! – I gave him his walking papers!

STANLEY: You did, huh?

BLANCHE: But then he came back. He returned with a box of roses to beg my forgiveness. But some things are not forgivable. Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.

—Act Three, Scene 4,

“A Streetcar Named Desire”

Radiant in pink and white, from the three-quarter-length “Chanel knock-off I bought in Shanghai when making a film there,” to the dazzling white pants suit beneath it, to the four strands of big white pearls dangling down her front, Natasha Richardson considered the proposition that on stage or on screen she has played at least six women in extremis, desperate, trapped, nowhere to go—Anna Christie, Sally Bowles, Zelda Fitzgerald, Patricia Hearst, Catherine Holly of Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” and, now, the ultimate Tennessee Williams heroine, Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Studio 54.

Does this indicate an affinity for such ladies? Pearls of drama, like those pearls you’re wearing?

“‘The Lady from the Sea’ at [London’s] Almeida, and I’ve actually done another film, ‘Asylum,’ which Jonathan Demme was to direct, but didn’t, but at the time he said to me: ‘Why do you want to play women who are in such a dark place, over the edge?’ and I said: ‘Because there but for the grace of God… ’

“So yes, there is an element of that,” said the daughter of the Vanessa Redgrave who had herself played Ellida at New York’s Circle-in-the-Square in the 1970s, under the direction of Natasha’s father, Tony Richardson. “I feel for this woman [Blanche DuBois] and understand where she’s coming from. But of course people in life are a mass of contradictions. I work out in a gym and yet I smoke.”

Richardson made a dismissive motion of the hand, and continued, “It’s never just one thing but a chain of events, like an airplane crash: a spark somewhere, then a fuse blows, and then an engine falls off.”

She touched the pearls.

“Once again, I bought these in Shanghai. Prior to playing a character I start to dress like them. But then when I’m playing them, I don’t remotely want to dress like them.”

Blanche DuBois in all her fuss and feathers never looked as cool as the star in the trim, white, Marlene Dietrich pants suit did at just that moment.

“In playing someone who’s in the midst of such pain and chaos, it’s very necessary for me to have stability and order and calm in my own life. I’ve never before tackled anything of this size or range—period. You know, she [Blanche] is never offstage except for half a scene. I’ve tackled tough roles before,” said Mrs. Liam Neeson, “but not as the mother of school-age children”—David, now 8, and Micheal, 9, “spelled the Irish way.” In recognition of her need for self-protection—“(a) to give me time to learn lines, and (b) to exile myself a few nights a week”—there exists a small hideaway office apartment separate from the Neeson/Richardson homestead on the Upper West Side.

She’s never before worked with director Edward Hall, “but interestingly enough, his father, Sir Peter Hall, asked me to play Blanche and Liam to play Stanley 11 years ago. Liam didn’t want to play Stanley, and I didn’t feel I was remotely ready to play Blanche. Tennessee wrote her as 35. I wasn’t 35, I was 30…”

She let the math, then and now, hang there.

The Stanley Kowalski of this Roundabout presentation of “Streetcar” is John C. Reilly. The Stella, Blanche’s sister, Stanley’s down-to-earth, sexually fulfilled wife, is Amy Ryan. Disillusioned Mitch, Stanley’s buddy, who shoves the face of Blanche, faded, played-out romanticizer of “what ought to be truth,” into the glare of a naked light bulb, is Chris Bauer.

Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. Five words. Everything Tennessee Williams ever stood for.

“Yes,” said the London-born actress who now steps into the shoes of Jessica Tandy and Vivien Leigh, “that is the crux of the play. We can all understand one another and misunderstand one another, but that is not forgivable.”

Buried deep within the soul of Blanche DuBois is guilt over her own cruelty at having years earlier driven the young husband she adored to suicide by blurting out, on a dance floor: “You disgust me!” after “suddenly coming into a room that I thought was empty” and discovering him in the arms of another man.

“What she did was kill the person she loved,” said Natasha Richardson, “but it was out of the moment; it wasn’t deliberate cruelty. It wasn’t… premeditated is the word I’m looking for.”

Your own father, Tony Richardson –

“Was bisexual, yes.”

Did you know?

“I think I was about 11 when I found out, when it really hit home.”

And?

“I’m ashamed enough to say that I was shocked and upset. Children don’t want their parents to be different from all other parents.”

To go back to the opening question: Does that provide an affinity with Blanche DuBois?

“Yes. All sorts of things in my life contribute to it. Some things I can’t talk about. But other things come out in this show seven nights a week at Studio 54.”

Accompanied, she hopes, by the kindness of strangers.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is currently in previews toward an April 26 opening at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St. For ticket information, call 212-719-1300.

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