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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Brilliant acting and direction drive a modern ‘Streetcar Named Desire’

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Jaimi Paige, left, and Maya Lynne Robinson in a scene from Boston Court’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”
(Jeff Lorch)

Michael Michetti’s revitalizing production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center shakes out the cobwebs of an American classic that hasn’t felt this fresh in a long time.

Before the play even begins it’s clear that this is not the New Orleans of yore but an updated version that’s more diverse and technologically with it. A DJ (the rousing sound designer Sam Sewell) parked at a table with computer equipment is playing sideman to a radical hip-hop torch singer (Paul Outlaw) who doesn’t so much warm up the room as fill it with steam heat.

Efren Delgadillo Jr.’s two-story set, with its ingenious use of scaffolding, leaves little doubt that we have left 20th century stagecraft behind. A few of the furnishings look like they might have been ordered online from cheap chain stores, but more than the decor, it’s the architecture of the scenic design that modernizes the theater aesthetic.

Doors and walls are removed for maximum transparency. Privacy is forbidden in the cramped downstairs apartment inhabited by Stanley and Stella Kowalski, a passionate couple who don’t mind the tight quarters until Blanche, Stella’s sister, arrives for an indeterminate stay with her outsize affectations and trunk overflowing with old memories.

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Desean Kevin Terry as Stanley in a scene from Boston Court’s “Streetcar Named Desire.”
(Jeff Lorch )

Despite her endless baths, Blanche can’t get a handle on her nerves. The whole throbbing French Quarter seems to be pulsating through the windows and igniting her fight-or-flight response. Belle Reve, the grand homestead that slipped through her fingertips, may have been partly undone by the “epic fornications” of her male ancestors, but it was no doubt a good deal more subdued.

The casting of Michetti’s production accentuates the modern multicultural milieu. Blanche is played by the extraordinary Jaimi Paige, a white actress who flutters about like the palest of moths. The rest of the ensemble (excluding the DJ) consists of actors of color, including the commanding Desean Kevin Terry as Stanley and the note-perfect Maya Lynne Robinson as Stella.

If Paige’s stupendous performance owes a debt to the famous Blanches that have preceded her, Terry’s Stanley and Robinson’s Stella reinvent their characters in ways that are true to both Williams’ play and the evolution of American society. Race isn’t inserted as a dramatic subject — we accept Blanche and Stella as sisters without any rewriting of the family history, and Stanley still hates it when Blanche calls him a “Polack” — but the casting changes the theatrical dynamics.

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The play no longer seems in futile competition with Elia Kazan’s original Broadway staging and film. Terry isn’t Marlon Brando-ish in the least, but he is a convincingly blue-collarish Stanley. When he screams “Stella!” in abject misery after his poker night violence has sent his pregnant wife seeking sanctuary with the upstairs neighbor, the cry isn’t a re-creation of one of American drama’s most famous moments but a distinctive interpretation of combustible masculinity collapsing into the fetal position.

“Streetcar” lives or dies by the quality of the acting, and this revival is just a potent rendition of the play. Michetti’s production is more faithful than Ivo van Hove’s landmark deconstruction with Elizabeth Marvel in 1999 or Liv Ullmann’s adventurous take with Cate Blanchett in 2009. The fluidity of Michetti’s direction doesn’t usurp authorship. The text is heeded in all its essentials, at least until Blanche and Stanley have their violent standoff.

The rape scene is less clear cut than usual. The symbolism of a black Stanley forcing himself onto a white Southern belle could assume noxious historical baggage. Michetti makes a bold interpretive choice that, while debatable, doesn’t ultimately undermine the pathos of Blanche’s victimization.

The conflict between Stanley and Blanche, two flawed characters who stake their different claims on Stella, is seen in more balanced light. If Blanche appeals to Stella’s honor and gentility, Stanley speaks directly to the carnal pleasures that are integral to her life force.

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Jaimi Paige, as Blanche, is the only white actor in the ensemble.
(Jeff Lorch )

Paige, so memorable as the sly dominatrix in “Venus in Fur” at South Coast Repertory a few years back, comfortably exists in the heightened poetic idiom of Williams’ playwriting. She possesses both the freedom and the grittiness that are needed to do justice to a role that’s as exaggeratedly theatrical as it is laceratingly human.

Paige’s Blanche doesn’t go down without a struggle. Her strengths vie with her weaknesses. When Mitch (Luis Kelly-Duarte, perfectly suited to the role), the average Joe she has pinned her hopes to, turns on her after hearing about her sordid past from his buddy Stanley, she responds like a cornered alley cat. His galumphing ordinariness is no match for her flamboyant spirit.

Robinson’s Stella compels close attention through her naturalness alone. Her every reaction — from the way she overlooks insulting remarks to the glimmers of temper that light her eyes when she’s pushed too far — emanates so purely from the character’s soul that it’s as if Robinson is behaving rather than acting. It’s a brilliant performance.

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The excellent supporting cast (Mariana Marroquin’s Eunice from upstairs is especially vivid) extends the community of diversity while freshly defining Williams’ dramatic world. A note about remembering Katrina on the shopping cart dragged by a bedraggled flower peddler (Martica De Cardenas) might sound like a distraction but feels completely in keeping with the play’s social conscience.

Michetti, who did such an impeccable job last fall with Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” at Pasadena Playhouse, just seems to go from strength to strength. His Boston Court production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” represents intimate L.A. theater at its best.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Where: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends March 25

Tickets: $20-39

Information: (626) 683-6801, www.BostonCourt.com

Running time: 3 hours

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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