Few guests arrive with as much baggage as Blanche DuBois when she alights from a New Orleans streetcar named Desire, transfers to another called Cemeteries and rides six blocks to reach an avenue sporting the unlikely name Elysian Fields.
Loaded down with more longings than belongings, Blanche proceeds to shift the very foundation of a faded apartment building as she makes her invasive and evasive journey through the lives of her sister, Stella, and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.
Witnessing an incisive actress tackle this role in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is one of the major pleasures of going to the theater. Reconfirming that assertion is Beth Hylton, whose Blanche anchors Everyman Theatre's first production of this classic play. Too bad she and her impressive colleagues are hindered by some directorial choices that work against the material.
"Streetcar" is the other half of Everyman's ambitious Great American Rep project that caps the company's 25th-anniversary season. For the first installment, Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" (also a company first), director Vincent Lancisi steered a conventional path that kept the play in tight focus.
The "Streetcar" conductor, Derek Goldman, does the basics well, drawing smooth and natural performances from the superbly costumed actors on Daniel Ettinger's evocative set, and building to climactic points in deft fashion. But things veer off course at some key junctures. More on that in a moment.
First, there's Hylton's beautifully layered performance to consider. She does not play Blanche as a wilting flower, ever on the verge of losing her last petal, but as a woman strong enough, mentally and physically, to have done all those bad things folks back in Mississippi say about her.
When this Blanche slips into seductive mode, Hylton makes it feel genuine. But you also always detect the part of the character who is sincerely convinced that she possesses "beauty of the mind and richness of the spirit and tenderness of the heart." At the end, as Hylton's Blanche, hair still wet from one last bath, comes unglued, the awful weight of her fate registers movingly.
Danny Gavigan has the physique and the force for the role of Stanley. It's not just that he can yell "Stella" persuasively. He underlines the extent of Stanley's pride, cynicism and selfishness. Yet, there's just enough vulnerability peeking out of his sleeveless T-shirt to make you understand his mutually dependent relationship with Stella, colorfully and endearingly played by Megan Anderson.
Chris Genebach does sensitive work as Stanley's buddy Mitch. Dawn Ursula (Eunice) and Bruce Randolph Nelson (Steve) are solid as the upstairs neighbors with problems of their own.
Although Williams references the music of New Orleans throughout the play, Goldman runs with that cue heavily, adding a singer (the deep-voiced, stylish Kelli Blackwell), who wanders in and out of the action. The effect is initially atmospheric but soon turns distracting. By the time you see the vocalist popping out of the Kowalskis' bathroom, you may want to let out a Stanley-level scream of your own.
The musical interludes undercut some of the most crucial scenes, intruding just when an audience ought to have a chance to absorb the impact of what they have witnessed, especially the final confrontation between Blanche and Stanley.
Things are likewise disappointing during the electric moment when, after Blanche lifts the veil on her past indiscretions and Mitch gets his first real look at her, the unsettling figure of a Mexican woman passes by hawking flowers for the dead. That stranger's appearance should be haunting, not so blatant and downright loud that it interferes with the dialogue continuing inside.
In the end, though, the strengths of the ensemble compensate for such missteps, making it possible to savor anew the poetic power of "Streetcar" and one complex, beguiling woman's journey to the end of the line.