Williamstown stages a cool `Streetcar'

Across the hot and seething surface of Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos has stretched a cool hand. If not completely calculating, this directorial touch nonetheless chills the spirit roiling at the core of this most renowned of Williams's work. In the season's final production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Mr. Psacharopoulos has remounted Williams's 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama for the third time in 27 years. In a festival that is increasingly becoming a showcase for Williams's work, the director has this year paired ``Streetcar'' with its quasi-companion piece ``Summer and Smoke'' -- two classics that further Williams's explorations of languid doom and mystical frustration originally probed in ``The Glass Menagerie.''

Written by the playwright relatively concurrently, the plays feature female protagonists who can be seen, if not as distorted images of each other, then as variations on the same spiritual dilemma. They are sensitive, if romantic, souls mercilessly out of step with an alien world. While Alma Winemiller, the lonely spinster of ``Summer and Smoke,'' is often considered the greater tragic figure, it is Blanche DuBois who ultimately most claims our emotions. Hers is a fall from grace broken only by the author's poetic chronicling of it, a recording made by an eye both compassionate and unblinking, and an imagination both cosmic and human.

``Streetcar'' is the history of Blanche, an aristocratic Mississippi belle, who through fallen circumstances comes to live with her more earthbound sister, Stella, and her ``common'' husband, Stanley Kowalski, in a New Orleans tenement. While Blanche struggles to maintain delusions of grandeur about her past and present (`I don't want reality, I want magic,'' she cries), her brother-in-law increasingly finds her a liar whose gossamer illusions he insistently and tragically pierces with his own brutal realities.

Unlike the largely private agonies of ``Summer and Smoke,'' the antagonisms of ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' are highly physicalized. Blanche's decadent gentility and literary intellect collide with Stanley's animal force. He is a man she knowingly describes as ``my executioner.'' In flight from a world only partly of her own making and one she can no longer control, Blanche seeks refuge in her own powers of seduction. Although in temporary retreat from the more carnal aspects of those powers, Blanche depends for survival upon the wooing of her sister back to their enchanted if vestigial upbringing replete with ``art, poetry, and music.'' Stella vibrates between the poles of Blanche's and Stanley's opposite attractions, and the drama is fueled by these constantly shifting influences.

Blanche and Stanley are the proverbial cobra and mongoose, jockeying as much for their position vis-`a-vis each other as toward their shared prey.

Because Psacharopoulos has chosen to let such dynamics lapse into linguistic confrontation unreinforced by sufficient physical dramatization, this production flags considerably.

With the exception of the eternally cultish Blythe Danner, a long-time Williamstown player, the other principals -- Sigourney Weaver as Stella, Christopher Walken as Stanley, and James Naughton as Mitch -- evince a disconcerting stasis.

Walken and Weaver in particular light no fires under each other. When this lack of magnetism is coupled with each actor's rather statuesque proportions, the effect is somewhat friezelike.

Mr. Walken's abrupt and stylized eruptions of anger do little to raise the temperature of this cool, slightly removed production.

His is a mannered performance more akin to his recent otherworldly film roles than the brutally sensual performance given by Marlon Brando nearly 40 years ago.

Miss Weaver's commanding physical presence and alert intelligence work against her Stella, a woman pulled from her upper-class background and transplanted by her husband in a somewhat squalid Eden, one that is lit by colored lights. That Weaver and Walken seldom come in contact with each other is all the more disconcerting.

Mr. Naughton performs unremarkably in another of Williams's thanklessly doltish roles. Naughton played Jim, the gentleman caller, in last year's Williamstown production of ``The Glass Menagerie.''

Only Miss Danner, who increasingly flutters among the principals, seems informed by any consistent passion or panic. After a teetering entrance that seems more occasioned by ill-fitting footwear than a precariously balanced psyche, Danner's performance grows in strength and consistency. By the play's end she is a broken princess literally on her knees.

Yet even here, Blanche's demise seems more cerebral than visceral, economic than cosmic. Her hot flame of desperation is never fanned into full blaze in this ultimately unignited ``Streetcar.''

At Williamstown through Sunday.

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