It can be tough to separate Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Streetcar Named Desire" from the indelible 1951 movie version and the countless Marlon Brando parodies ("Ste-lllaahhh!!!").
So any theater that climbs aboard "Streetcar" has to shed lots of baggage before zeroing in on the text. Olney Theatre Center's current production accomplishes that, and in the process illuminates several aspects of this modern masterpiece.
The word "illuminates" is deliberately chosen since light -- or more precisely, the attempt to evade light -- is a defining element of protagonist Blanche DuBois. A faded Southern belle, Blanche is hiding from her recent past just as she hides from the glare of bare bulbs.
One of the grand-scale tragic heroines in American literature, Blanche is, in at least one respect, the American stage's female Hamlet. Like the Danish prince, she can be portrayed as mad from start to finish. That choice, however, sacrifices the character's mystery and depth.
At Olney, part of Blanche's depth stems from director John Going's use of a script that combines the text from the original 1947 Broadway production with the version subsequently published by the playwright. Several of the expanded speeches reinforce Blanche's revulsion for her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, and also detail the early circumstances that led her to stray from the refined path of Southern gentility.
Brigid Cleary, who plays Blanche, is an Olney veteran better known for comedy, and that talent may partly contribute to her ability to keep Blanche balancing precariously between, as she puts it, realism and magic. Cleary's Blanche knows the difference; she simply prefers the latter over the former.
Near the end, when reality can no longer be suppressed, Cleary's performance gets away from her a little. After emerging from a seemingly unending series of hot baths with her hair in a turban-wrapped towel, she seems more like a caricature of "Sunset Boulevard's" Norma Desmond than a desperate Blanche DuBois. Until then, however, Cleary retains enough mystery to not only win our understanding, but to occasionally permit us to see things from Blanche's point of view.
This is especially important because of the light it sheds on her sister Stella's marriage to abusive Stanley. Public awareness of the plight of battered wives has grown considerably since "Streetcar" debuted. By enhancing Blanche's credibility -- particularly when she reacts with shock to Stanley's attack on Stella -- the production increases our overall concern for Stanley's innocent young bride.
That concern is further heightened by Kathleen Christal's restrained, gentle depiction of Stella -- the production's most sensitive performance. Neal Moran brings a related quality to Blanche's sweet, momma's-boy suitor, Mitch.
Both of these portrayals contrast visibly with that of Kevin Carrigan as crude Stanley. Admittedly, it's impossible not to hear Brando's voice in some of Stanley's lines. But Carrigan adds a slight boyishness to the role as well as a layer of self-hatred that surfaces when he pounds his fists into his own face after Stella seeks sanctuary with a neighbor.
James Kronzer's New Orleans tenement set, Daniel MacLean Wagner's carefully modulated lighting and Scott Burgess' sound design contribute to the play's edgy juxtaposition of gritty reality and elusive make-believe. The result is as harsh as a slap and as poetic as the Hart Crane verse with which Williams prefaced his script, and which Cleary's Blanche quotes at the beginning of Olney's insightful production.
"A Streetcar Named Desire"
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, selected Thursday and Saturday matinees. Through Aug. 27
Call: (301) 924-3400