Friday, May 14, 2004

Her voice is like husk and honey, like bourbon filtered through branch water. She moves with an almost absurd delicacy, as if unused to her high-heeled shoes touching anything as common as linoleum and cracked pavement. Her gestures are theatrical, yet dainty and ladylike.

Actress Patricia Clarkson, best-known as a screen actress, proves to be a luminescent Blanche DuBois in a new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” guided by Irish director Garry Hynes. She very much resembles the flitty, doomed “moth” Tennessee Williams had in mind when he wrote the character.

Her Blanche is a dangerous flirt, high-maintenance yet capable of casting a clingy, seductive spell on everyone she meets, including the audience. “I want magic,” she says at one point, and her alchemic power to change the air around her to something strong and disturbingly feminine is a testament to her will to live in a dream world of her own conjuring.

“Streetcar” premiered in 1947 with Jessica Tandy as the fragile Blanche and Marlon Brando as the hulking, searingly human Stanley Kowalski. The roles of Blanche and Stanley have been coveted by actors ever since because of the heft and heat of the characters.

Set in New Orleans, a town tangled in Southern mythology, “Streetcar” charts the downfall of Blanche DuBois as she descends on the cramped apartment of her younger sister, Stella Kowalski (Amy Ryan), and her palooka husband, Stanley (Adam Rothenberg), one long, hot summer.

Into Stella and Stanley’s postwar, blue-collar world of poker games, bottles of beer and bowling drops Blanche, who, in her gossamer ‘20s and ‘30s frocks (the lost-world glamour is provided by costume designer Jane Greenwood) and plantation-style mannerisms, seems like the ghost from another era. She doesn’t so much haunt the apartment as stalk it, turning Stanley’s happily stag den of iniquity into a place of spilled powder and perfume, fanciful Chinese lanterns and twilight lighting.

The volatile Stanley pops a cork when the balance of power shifts from masculine to feminine. He wants to rule the roost again, and he regains control in a cruel, ham-handed way that has ramifications far beyond getting rid of a lingering houseguest.

For all of Mr. Rothenberg’s jocular, superbly physical portrayal of Stanley — in the famous scene in which he bellows “Stella,” Mr. Rothenberg climbs up and down a pole like an ape — this production of “Streetcar” belongs to the women.

Miss Clarkson is a New Orleans native who finds the abundant poetry and comedy in Mr. Williams’ words in a way no other actress in recent memory has done. Blanche is neurotic, snooty, a possible nymphomaniac and a drunk — but she also is funny; butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, to be sure, but it’s butter that is slightly rancid with sarcastic wit.

Her foil is Stella, played as a lust-drunk young woman by Amy Ryan. Her Stella is not a subservient helpmate but someone gleaming and transformed by her startling desire for Stanley.

“Streetcar” is drenched in sex, not only in the Kowalski apartment, but in the entire building, which appears to be teeming with young married couples who got it bad for each other. Miss Hynes’ staging emphasizes the sexual as a force that can thrill and destroy in equal measures. The prevailing sultriness of the production, however, briefly turns to torpor in the second act, with a noticeable downturn in energy.

Miss Ryan’s Stella is every bit as strong as Miss Clarkson’s Blanche; she is a determinedly modern American housewife who lives in the present as persistently as her sister wants to drown in the past. There’s a spark to her, a survival instinct that Blanche tragically lacks.

A character skirting the brutish world of Stanley and Blanche’s coquettish dream state is her suitor, Mitch (Noah Emmerich), who plays the role with such oafish sweetness and earnestness he seems to embody the best of both genders.

In the end, the play belongs to Blanche. Stanley has done his worst, and now he and his chums play poker while waiting for the doctor to come and cart Blanche off to the loony bin. Even in her ruined beauty, Blanche has the final say, walking out as if being escorted to the cotillion, her dignity and delusion intact.***1/2

WHAT: “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 30.

TICKETS: $25 to $75

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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