The crucial tragic figures of the American stage may be Willy Loman and Blanche Dubois, roles that came to light within two years of each other in the late 1940s. Tennessee Williams mercilessly reveals Blanche's downward spiral in A Streetcar Named Desire, a work that continues to cut close to the bone. Theatre in the Square's production of the play has some distracting frills at its edges, but they don't detract from the excellent elements at the center.
As Blanche, Jessica Phelps West is directed by her mentor, former UGA drama professor August Staub, and their collaborations consistently bring out the best in the actress. West similarly shone in their productions of Private Lives and Hedda Gabler, also at Theatre in the Square, and her performance here is superbly calibrated.
In playing the deluded Dixie belle, West never oversells Blanche's artifice of etiquette, keeping the role from caricature. For all her conniptions and contradictions, West's Blanche is no ethereal near-nutcase but a sadly solid figure, with a lived-in Southern accent and refined, flirty mannerisms. West finds gold in some of the play's least noisy or famous moments, especially with her sister Stella (Shannon Malone). She suggests a world of suffering in her pauses during such lines as, "I haven't been so ... good" or "Funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet. Deaths ... not always." West plays the final "kindness of strangers" scene with virtually no suggestions of mental illness, and it is the more effective for it.
The rest of the cast give West the sturdy support of columns -- or "colyumns," as the play's Louisianans pronounce the word. Malone purrs with pleasure over her physical connections to husband Stanley (Charles Pittard), embodying Williams' then-groundbreaking theme that sex is actually sexy. Allen O'Reilly is nicely cast as Mitch, a semi-comic figure who may be the last gentleman in New Orleans and is genuinely anguished at learning the details of Blanche's sordid past.
Blanche represents the last gasp of the New South, a way of life Stanley is happy to finish off. Pittard lives up to the coarseness of Stanley Kowalski, tucking cigarettes behind his ear or wiping his face with beer. Pittard captures Stanley's sexual magnetism and unexpected cunning, but he's always a life-sized bully and never emerges as an emblematic figure like Blanche. His single yell of "Stella!" after the brawl scene, which sends his wife running to his side in a Pavlovian response, proves an anticlimax for such a famous moment in theater.
The stage, with wrought-iron balcony outside windows, perfectly suggests a French Quarter apartment, in which two rooms are supposedly separated by a curtain. But the production can't stop naggingly reminding us of the play's New Orleans setting, blaring the inevitable "When the Saints Come Marchin' In" between scenes and using the aisles as high-traffic areas for hollering newsies, floozies, merchants, etc.
Williams' penchant for gothic flourishes doesn't always age well, and here Staub highlights some things better kept more subtle. When the "flowers for the dead" peddler ominously walks through the audience as Mitch confronts Blanche or the tinkly music recurs to represent Blanche's descent into madness, Streetcar teeters at the brink of self-parody.
But Williams has retained his fame for the power of his drama, not his melodrama, and the insights in numerous minor moments compensate for uneven aspects of major ones. This production's cumulative powers come from such details as Stanley's rooster-like assertion of "The Napoleonic Code," the uneasy seduction in the newsboy scene or the way the omnipresent liquor and beer bottles represent another kind of glass menagerie. Some moments go off-track, but the work of Jessica Phelps West keeps this Streetcar from jumping the rails.
A Streetcar Named Desire plays through April 29 at Theatre in the Square, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta, with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sun. $20-25. 770-422-8369.