Darkness Becomes Her

By Jerry Tallmer
May 5, 2005

Natasha Richardson's empathy for fragile, wounded characters brings her, at last, to A Streetcar Named Desire's Blanche DuBois.

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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 III, 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 pantsuit beneath it, to the four strands of big white pearls dangling down her front, Natasha Richardson considers the proposition that on stage or 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?

"Yes," comes the unadorned answer, "there is an affinity. I've also been Ellida in Ibsen's 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," says the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, who herself played Ellida at New York's Circle in the Square Theatre in the 1970's 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" — dismissive motion of the hand. "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.

"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," says Mrs. Liam Neeson, "but not as the mother of school-age children" — Daniel, now 8, and Micheal, 9, "spelled the Irish way."

She's never before worked with director Edward Hall either, "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."

The Stanley Kowalski of this Roundabout presentation of Streetcar is John C. Reilly. The Stella, Blanche's sister and 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," says 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," says 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.