Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

don’t want realism, I want magic,” protests Blanche as she struggles to avoid the merciless glare of a naked lightbulb in A Streetcar Named Desire. And for the most part, director John Going and the Olney Theater’s designers grant her wish. Their atmospheric, retro, Blanchophilic mounting of Tennessee Williams’ drama accepts its heroine’s vision of the world in a way most productions these days do not. The result is a tremendously effective first two acts, and a conclusion that’s oddly reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard.

Point-of-view is established the moment Brigid Cleary’s Blanche appears onstage accompanied by a voice-over (“And so it was that I entered the Quarter…”) cribbed from the movie version. She is immaculate, not faded. There’s nary a hair out of place, nor a wrinkle in her trim white dress. And though she’s tactless in her appraisal of the two-room New Orleans tenement her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Kevin Carrigan) and her sister Stella (Kathleen Christal) call home, she’s not inaccurate. It is tawdry, and neither she nor Stella seems suited to it. As the evening progresses and Blanche’s battle with Stanley escalates into a war between imagination and brute force, she remains elegant and resourceful even when tipsy. Only after it’s clear that her world has collapsed does she lose her composure enough to shout a joke (about luring her victims to a hotel called the “Tarantula Arms”) that would be more effective if whispered.

Blanche has always been the central character in Streetcar, though Marlon Brando’s outsize stage and film performances did a lot to convince audiences that Stanley is her equal. With Alma in Summer and Smoke, Hannah in The Night of the Iguana, and a host of other dissembling, defensively castrating heroines, Williams eventually turned shabby Southern spinsterdom into a monstrous cliché. But for audiences in 1947, Blanche was a strikingly sympathetic character—witness Brooks Atkinson’s opening-night judgment in the New York Times: “Streetcar is the history of a gently reared Mississippi young woman who invents an artificial world to mask the hideousness of the world she has to inhabit. Blanche…buoys herself up with gaudy dreams. She is one of the dispossessed whose experience has unfitted her for reality.”

Somewhere in the intervening decades, directors stopped giving this Southern belle the benefit of the doubt, and audiences became less generous. Today, Blanche is usually pictured with slip showing on her first entrance, hair in disarray by Scene Two, and dementia setting in soon thereafter. Cleary’s portrait is comparatively clear-eyed. When she lies—say, about her drinking—she knows she’s not fooling anyone, but she also knows she can fend off most challenges by chattering away nonstop. Christal’s sweetly noncompetitive Stella isn’t about to stand up to her. Nor is Mitch (Neal Moran), the mama’s boy who checks over his shoulder to make sure he won’t be observed when she makes him bow before presenting flowers. Moran gives Mitch more spine than is customary, and succeeds in making their match seem briefly plausible. That leaves only Carrigan’s strong, slow-to-flare Stanley as a serious threat, and with the actor looking buff and presentable even when grease-smeared, it’s easy to see why Blanche considers him tamable.

Blessed by strong casting all the way down to Jeff Bankert’s diffident paperboy, Going’s staging leans heavily on the moodiness generated by James Kronzer’s damp, rotting, gloriously detailed New Orleans tenement, and the deep shadows in Daniel McLean Wagner’s lighting scheme. The director’s taste for showy staging conceits can be a bit much, especially when he’s using special effects to underline the obvious (sulfurous smoke kicked up by rumbling trains when Blanche talks about the Grim Reaper pitching his tent on her front porch). But his only really serious miscalculation is in the final scene, when he tries to make sure patrons remember they’re on Blanche’s addled wavelength by running everyone else’s dialogue through an echo chamber.

Scott Burgess contributes an original score that starts out tinkling and bluesy and builds to sultry, full-bodied, new-age synthesizer riffs. Rosemary Pardee’s faded costumes contribute to the feeling of decay, except when they go over the top for the leading lady. In the final act, when Blanche is tippling Southern Comfort in a floor-brushing maroon robe that Norma Desmond would kill for, the emphasis on grandeur gets a trifle excessive. Still, perhaps that’s to be expected if Blanche’s outlook is to dominate.

Just six months ago, the Washington Shakespeare Company took a more naturalistic tack, anchoring its production in the gritty, colorless world inhabited by Stanley and his cronies. Widely praised (and scheduled to be remounted in September at the company’s grand new Clark Street Playhouse), the WSC approach is more in keeping with the brusque sensibilities I generally favor, but struck me as episodic and unpersuasive, perhaps because it never really bought into Blanche’s worldview. The Olney’s romanticized version hangs together better—at least until it gets swept up in its heroine’s madness—but isn’t grounded enough in the real world to give the play’s final confrontations the weight they require. The evening ultimately feels satisfying rather than shattering, its pain the result of bad karma between in-laws. Fate barely enters into the equation. You want every syllable of Stanley’s brutish, rape-presaging “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” to jangle your nerve endings, but at Olney, Blanche’s frame of reference has so dominated throughout that you half expect her to have a comeback.