A Streetcar Named Desire

René Augesen and Joe Manganiello in A Streetcar Named Desire. (Carol Rosegg photo / October 2, 2013)

A Streetcar Named Desire is a play that carries so much baggage, it can be hard to grasp why it was so popular in the first place. So many revivals of this Pulitzer-winning Tennessee Williams classic are relentlessly bleak, or angry, or dark, that it's easy to forget this is a play that, intermittently, is about love and hope and optimism.

A big, colorful, breezy new production at the Yale Repertory, replete with a West Coast regional theater treasure Rene Augesen as Blanche DuBois and TV-werewolf stud Joe Manganiello as Stanley Kowalski, gives you the full picture. It reminds you who these characters really are. Blanche is a delusional woman who makes up fanciful stories to mask the scandalous turns her life has taken, but Augesen reminds us that the character was also recently a Southern schoolteacher, a skittish woman who's out of her element in the earthy, inelegant city of New Orleans where she's come to stay with her sister Stella.

Sarah Sokolovic, similarly, shows us a desirable, vivacious Stella, strong enough to tame her volatile husband Stanley — most of the time. The play shows us some of the times she can't. This production, however, makes sure we understand how Stanley and Stella love each other.

Stanley Kowalski is a catalytic character who is too often allowed to overwhelm the stories he's propelling: the sisterly reunion of Stella and Blanche; the courtship of Blanche and Stanley's pal Mitch; Stella's pregnancy; Blanche's downward-spiraling mental state. When Joe Manganiello is in a scene, he owns the stage. When he's not the center of attention, however, he wisely backs off and lets others act. Manganiello also holds himself back from becoming a thug or a caveman. As comparisons go, he's more like the cocky, sullen Paul Newman of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than the overbearing Brando of Streetcar.

A Streetcar Named Desire is a full-bodied ensemble-based play. It has over a dozen characters in it, charged with personifying the vitality and diversity of post-WW2 New Orleans. Adam O'Byrne (one of many successful Yale School of Drama grads who've been enlisted for this production) creates a Mitch whose natural inclinations may be at odds with the Southern manners his mother has instilled in him. April Matthis is both supportive and suspicious as good neighbor Eunice, while Marc Damon Johnson as Eunice's husband Steve is believable whether playing poker amiably with Stanley or rolling his eyes pityingly at him. Nick Erkelens brings youth, innocence and a remarkable sense of uneasiness to the small but crucial role of Young Collector, the newspaper boy whom Blanche shares a tender moment with.

Director Mark Rucker (an old hand at bright, buoyant, layered, big-cast Yale Rep shows, from several fine Shakespeare shows to Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid to Tom Stoppard's Rough Crossing) takes an approach that may seem audacious but turns out to be inspired. He goes for a big, clean, grand, old-school theatrical style, with humor and sex appeal and highly choreographed fight scenes. You'd think such stylization, played out on a vast two-story set and staged in a virtually two-dimensional, linear manner that resembles a painting as much as a play, would take the edge off a menacing drama that was once considered the height of Method Acting naturalism. Yet Rucker understands that Tennessee Williams was also a romantic and a fantasist and a dreamer. This show makes you appreciate moments of A Streetcar Named Desire that you may never have noticed before. It will shock, stun, seduce, amuse and enlighten you. Great plays used to do all that. This one still does.

A Streetcar Named Desire

By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Rucker. With Rene Augesen, Joe Manganiello, Sarah Sokolovic and Adam O'Byrne. Presented by the Yale Repertory Theatre through Oct. 12 at the Yale University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven. (203) 432-1234, yalerep.org.