That feathery delicacy has always been an act: At her very core, Blanche DuBois has always been as tough—as single-minded and ferocious and driven by appetite—as the coarse brother-in-law she takes such pleasure in deriding. It’s disguised as neediness most of the time, cloaked in those delicate mannerisms, hidden among the secrets she contemplates in those endless hot baths and the lies she conjures from the depths of her whiskey glass. But the Blanche whose desire drives her to the brink of madness and past it is, however perversely and indirectly, as ruthless a creature as any of Tennessee Williams’ women.

At Arena Stage, the Hungarian film and stage director János Szász has started from that notion to build an unusually gritty production of A Streetcar Named Desire, drawing from Rebecca Nelson an aggressively physical performance that mirrors (though it never quite tries to match) the broad brutality of Dan Moran’s Stanley Kowalski. There are no giggles in the offstage bathtub from this Blanche, only harsh barks and a regular stridency; there is less nervousness than nerve in her gestures, in the length of her stride. She is frantic, yes, but never for a minute frail, except in her own illusions, and she hasn’t enough conviction left to make us buy those. The pass she makes at the paperboy, a wistful if unsettling overture on the page, is here a desperate and determined attempt at rape. The result is a Streetcar that rubs in our face much of what we expect to see hinted at, alluded to—and unearths a few things in its allusions that we may never have expected to find at all.

The clarity of the prefix when Nelson’s Blanche asks how “heterogeneous” Stanley’s friends are, for instance. (The play turns at one critical juncture on the homo-geniality of a man in her past.) And the unusual emphasis on Stella’s motivations: The needs that carry Blanche’s well-bred little sister into Stanley’s working-class arms are usually left more or less up to the audience’s imagination (never mind those lines about “colored lights” and the bedroom acrobatics that ignite them). Here, though, Szász telegraphs Blanche’s domineering nature (and Stella’s feelings about it) before the action even begins, with an eerie little prologue that sends a pair of genteel girls, all lustrous hair and claret velvet, circulating through Csaba Antal’s squalid attic-apartment set, which decomposes even further around them as they pass. It’s obvious that they’re a young Blanche and Stella—and that the dynamic that governs the two of them will be a major disruptive force as the evening goes on—but Szász goes on to underscore both their identities and the tenor of their relationship with a slightly forced bit of bullying byplay.

And so this Streetcar tracks Stella’s simmering resentments nearly as closely as it follows the ever-building aggressions that will set Blanche and Stanley at each other’s throats. Mercedes Herrero’s Stella is never her sister’s partisan, only her halfhearted, reluctantly loyal defender; she knows from the beginning that Blanche’s visit is a bad idea, and when the browbeating becomes too much to take, her reaction is literally a dash of cold water across the face. Certainly, the setup pays off at the play’s conclusion, when Szász follows Blanche’s famous “kindness of strangers” line with a directorial fillip that has worlds to say about the kindness, and the unkindness, of kin. And, given the perversity of Stella’s relationship with Blanche, her complicated rapport with the abusive Stanley suddenly makes a bit more sense in this equation: In marrying him, she’s merely traded up from an indirect emotional terrorism to a more straightforwardly physical variety. (Make no mistake: Moran’s leather-clad, thick-bodied bruiser has nothing of the brooding sensitivity others have brought to the role.)

But then, everything is more direct in Szász’s New Orleans—except the setting, a grimy urban Anycity that’s not New Orleans at all, despite the text’s occasional references to streetcars and the Napoleonic code. And never mind Blanche’s disdain for the “bobby-soxers” at the school from which she’s been dismissed: That paperboy wears his LSU cap backward, straining for casual hip, and the ball game on the beat-up TV plays out in color, so we’re not in the ’50s anymore.

The lyricism of Williams’ language is eternal, but Szász and his actors strip away the moonlight-and-magnolias languor that traditionally adheres to it; there are no slow Southern accents here, only a flat, affectless tone that suggests both universality and overriding despair. Blanche’s fevered chronicle of the deaths at Belle Reve—the white-columned plantation whose loss fuels her downward spiral—still sounds like poetry, as does her brief fantasia, late in the play, about how she imagines her own end will come. But her great “I want magic” speech, so crucial to defining her outlook that André Previn made it the major aria in his Streetcar opera, comes across in a rush of colorless words; you suspect Nelson of hurrying past it, hoping audiences won’t notice the way its sentiments clash with Szász’s concept.

But if the director robs the audience of that clue to Blanche’s character, he offers a startling substitute with the weight he puts on another exchange, a rumination that too often comes across as not much more than a bit of Williams wordplay: Desire, she observes, is the opposite of death—and “How could you possibly wonder” why a woman so dogged by loss would look for solace in the life-affirming rituals of the bedchamber? It’s not just that she’s been seeking love—and too often finding lust—to anesthetize the ache she hasn’t been able to escape since her unthinking cruelty destroyed her first husband; it’s that believing in love’s possibility, even as she learns again and again the emptiness of its promise, is the only thing that’s been keeping her sane. Losing that hope at last, she embraces what she’s been fighting all along—and Szász suggests, with a wash of light and a snippet of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” that insanity isn’t the only oblivion she’s reaching for.

That tangle of notions seems to be what binds together, however tenuously, the blatantly contradictory elements of Szász’s production. What does it matter if his Blanche professes delicacy in one breath and proves herself a liar in the next? In his view, she’s mad well before the men come with the white coats, as you might gather from the set’s tendency to tilt and rock when she’s most distressed; his production isn’t so much about Blanche’s descent into madness as about the toll her already rampant psychosis takes on the people around her.

That may not be the perfect approach to Streetcar, if there is such a thing, but it’s certainly a potent one. And it’s a bracing theatrical challenge from a company that’s been seeming a bit too comfortable in its institutional skin. CP