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Beyond the icons to the soul of ‘Streetcar’

Special to The Times

“Maybe he’s what we need to mix with our blood, now that we’ve lost Belle Reve,” concedes genteel Blanche DuBois as her untenable romanticism crumbles before the blunt reality of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

It’s a line that resonates with unexpected urgency amid the flexing of American military muscle in the wake of illusions shattered on Sept. 11. A timely opportunity to revisit that metaphorical connection presents itself in an illuminating revival from Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.

Williams’ masterpiece is often performed but seldom as well, or in its uncut entirety, as we find it here. In the leads, neither Linda Purl as Blanche nor Tom Astor as Stanley are iconic figures. Rather, they find their way to the souls of their characters through precision and nuance, transforming a work commonly presented as a star vehicle into the broader human tableau Williams intended.

Blanche’s disintegration nevertheless remains “Streetcar’s” spine, and Purl’s harrowing performance tracing that grueling descent will deservedly mark a career highlight -- an archetypally fragile Williams heroine whose desperate longing for beauty and poetry cannot survive a world that follows a coarser dictum.

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Astor’s Stanley, while cheerfully conceding he’s not the refined type, is refreshingly complex. Despite a decidedly unassuming initial impression -- less Neanderthal, more regular guy striving to rise above his blue-collar origins -- he proves fully capable of volcanic eruptions. Yet his savagery is a natural defensive reaction to Blanche’s honey-tongued jabs at the raw nerves of his insecurities. The only strain in their otherwise convincing duel is Stanley’s final move -- the impulses that drive his ultimate cruelty remain opaque, though the brutality is crystal clear.

As Mitch, Stanley’s Army buddy and plant co-worker, Eric Lange is heartbreaking in courting Blanche with a naive belief in her conventional virtue, and tragic inability to recognize that in a deeper way she really is the rare jewel he seeks. Tami Tappan Damiano’s Stella exudes the smoldering sexuality that cements her marriage to Stanley. The Kowalskis’ rowdy upstairs neighbors (Laurel Lyle, Joseph Fuqua) and other peripheral characters expand the piece to embrace the hedonism of 1947 New Orleans, although the intimate stage dictates occasional awkward blocking.

The Laurel Theatre’s newly installed directional sound system is used to great advantage as swirling ambient street sounds collide with the music and voices that haunt Blanche.

Director James O’Neil, who directed the Rubicon’s accomplished production of “The Glass Menagerie,” again displays a sure hand with the intricate rhythm and pace of Williams’ poetic dialogue. As we move ever more determinedly toward finding our national inner Stanley Kowalski, this staging’s exceptional clarity offers a chance to revisit what that means, and the price we might have to pay for it.

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‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Where: Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: Wednesdays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

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Ends: May 25

Price: $28-$43

Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 3 hours, 25 minutes

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