Sometimes, a play may be outdated in its particulars, but what it says of human relationships is so truthful that the work remains moving and relevant.
A Streetcar Named Desire is that sort of drama. Tennessee Williams' potboiler opened in December 1947, and even then, in post–World War II America, the genteel Southern world summoned by Williams' fragile Blanche Dubois was on the fade. Seventy years later, it's not only Blanche's ideals and illusions that seem distant and quaint — so does the 1940s New Orleans' Latin Quarter environs she traveled to, in search of salvation and survival. Moreover, many societal changes have transpired since Williams wrote Streetcar; watching, you're aware of the gap between the prescribed gender roles of mid–20th century men and women and the relative fluidity of these roles today.
But neither this disparity nor any other mars the punch and power of director Michael Michetti's dynamic revival at Boston Court. The commentary extends beyond the individual human condition to the realms of race, power and privilege.
In this production, Michetti has preserved the original text, but he has also made two fundamental adjustments: He's framed the action with a mix of howling blues and pulsating rock & roll (vocals by Paul Outlaw, computer digitized and augmented by DJ Sam Sewell), and he has cast multi-ethnically, with every character, save Blanche (Jaimi Paige), portrayed by an individual of color.
A nervous Blanche arrives at the cramped quarters of her younger sister, Stella (Maya Lynne Robinson), and her husband, Stanley (Desean Kevin Terry), and promptly begins to usurp the limited space — spending hours in the bathroom, moving about the two-room flat as if she owned it, and turning the focus of attention on herself every possible minute of the day. So it's no wonder that the down-to-earth Stanley, already disturbed because he suspects Blanche has cheated him and Stella out of some money, has zero patience for her sugary maneuvers and prim pretensions.
Stella, on the other hand, despite being pregnant and having her hands full with her volatile spouse, is forbearing and kind. She recalls her sister in their girlhood, before life exacted its demanding price on Blanche's fracturable ego. Blanche's breakdown is forestalled when Mitch (Luis Kelly-Duarte), one of Stanley's card-playing buddies, develops a liking for her and they begin to date, until the façade Blanche has fashioned inevitably falls apart.
Williams constructed each of these four characters as a complex amalgam of sentiments and passions, and the actors deliver, in spades. Every onstage relationship is solid: between the two sisters; between husband and wife; between Stanley, crowded out of his own space, and Blanche, too self-absorbed to notice or care; between Blanche, the courted coquette, and Mitch, the courting one, a nice lonely fella who briefly thinks he's found someone to light his life.
One of the problems in staging this play is having to compete with Elia Kazan's original, in particular Marlon Brando's iconic performance as Stanley (reproduced, for ubiquitous consumption, in the 1951 film version). But Terry, playing a smarter, less loutish albeit just as sexy Stanley, makes the role absolutely his own, with cool stares at the presumptuous Blanche that conceal not at all his smoldering resentment. And when he begs forgiveness from his wife (after striking her and betraying her by fornicating with her sister), it's yet another strand added to an intricate portrayal.
As Blanche, Paige's first moments onstage are mannered and stiff (understandable, given she's delivering Williams' metaphorical prologue that takes her from “a streetcar named Desire” to a “streetcar named Cemeteries,” to “a street named Elysian Fields”). But things loosen up once she interacts with her sister and brother-in-law, and you realize how her affectations are intrinsic to her character. (In 2016, I watched this performer command the stage as a seductive Hedda Gabler; her Blanche, though frailer, is no less a practiced temptress.)
Robinson's Stella isn't as showy, but her portrait of a woman who's spent her life adapting to others more difficult and demanding — yet who can still hold her own in an argument — is a glowing one. Kelly-Duarte's kindly-turned-bitter Mitch breaks your heart.
It goes without saying that casting performers of color while leaving this text unmodified requires audiences to overlook certain disparities. It's a measure of the production's strength that one can. And having a flaky white person swish and strut about a small claustrophobic space (scenic design by Efren Delgadillo Jr.), with everyone else forced to accommodate her, is a brilliant way to make a political statement.
GO! Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave, Pasadena; through April 1. (626) 683-6801, bostoncourt.com.