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Todd Alan Johnson, Marianna Bassham, and Rachel Harker
Stanley (Todd Alan Johnson), Stella (Marianna Bassham), and Blanche (Rachel Harker) in the dingily realistic stage set. (Andrw Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
Stage Review

This 'Streetcar' is true to Williams - and to itself

WATERTOWN - Every great tragedy needs a ghost. Sometimes the spirits actually walk the stage, like Hamlet's father or the Tyrone boys' mother; sometimes they just hover in the wings, haunting every moment with the whisper of what was and will never be again.

Few plays are more haunted, or haunting, than "A Streetcar Named Desire," and not just because of the lovely, fragile ghost that is Blanche DuBois. Possessed herself by her fantasies of the lost past, Blanche takes over every corner of her sister Stella's tiny, grimy New Orleans flat with her tattered finery and paper lanterns, until the brutish Stanley Kowalski, Stella's husband, performs a violent and irreversible exorcism.

But just those names now summon up ghosts of their own, from Elia Kazan's indelible 1951 film: delicate, damaged Vivien Leigh; earthy Kim Hunter; and, most vivid of all, Marlon Brando. It's almost impossible to experience some moments in the play - Stanley's bellowed "Stella!," Blanche's reliance on the kindness of strangers - without conjuring those celluloid spirits.

It's all the more remarkable, then, that the New Repertory Theatre's Rick Lombardo has staged a "Streetcar" that feels deeply true to the spirit of Tennessee Williams and at the same time true to itself. Working on a set by Janie E. Howland that's just what a Williams set should be - dingily realistic in its details, dreamily abstract in its structure - and underscored by Haddon Kime's mournful streetcar moans and saxophone wails, Lombardo's four main actors and their supporting players draw us irresistibly into Williams's shattered, shattering world.

Of those four leading roles, it's the least showy - the Karl Malden part, for movie fans - that draws out the strongest performance here. As Stanley's friend and Blanche's sometime suitor, Mitch, Bates Wilder is quietly stunning.

Outwardly shy, a little bumbling, Wilder's Mitch contains hidden depths of longing, fury, and fear. Just watch his face as Mitch tells Blanche that his mother is ill: Wordlessly, with no gesture bigger than a blink and a compression of his lips, Wilder shows us Mitch's dread of her death and his need to keep that dread in check. It's devastating - and it gives humanity and shading to Mitch's more famous moment later on, when he forces Blanche into the light so he can see how old she is.

As for Rachel Harker's Blanche, she's fluttery and fine (an impression reinforced by Frances Nelson McSherry's sensitively attuned costumes), but with a bit more steel than you'd expect. Occasionally, she seems too focused - not so lost in dreams as we imagine the deluded doyenne of Belle Reve to be - but by mixing a little snap with the sap, Harker does remind us how tough Blanche has had to be just to survive. And having her occasionally touch down on the ground does make it more believable that she and Stella could be sisters.

Marianna Bassham's Stella, meanwhile, is as grounded as they get: lusting for Stanley, increasingly burdened by pregnancy, she's as rooted in her present as Blanche is in their past. Bassham also gives her an easy, rough humor (especially in her commiserations with the wonderfully wry Maureen Keiller as neighbor Eunice) that illuminates Stella's path from a genteel but stifling past to her knockabout life with Stanley.

Ah, yes, Stanley. Todd Alan Johnson, who's played his share of scary tough guys, from Sweeney Todd to the vicious "Wild Party" clown, takes a gentler tack with Mr. Kowalski. His voice often sounds high and light - and, surprisingly, more South Bronx than Deep South - and his hard muscle lies buried under a soft skin. We know it's there, but it's the softness we see first.

It's a thoughful approach to a character who can too often become a sweaty cliche. But that very thoughtfulness can be distracting: We're watching what Johnson is doing with Stanley, rather than watching to see what Stanley will do next. Part of the problem, though, may be that, for actors as for the rest of us, that scowling movie star in a T-shirt is the most persistent ghost of all.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Play by Tennessee Williams

Directed by: Rick Lombardo. Set, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Frances Nelson McSherry. Lights, John Malinowski. Music and sound, Haddon Kime. Props, Eric D. Diaz.

At: New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Oct. 7. Tickets, $35-55. 617-923-8487, newrep.org.

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