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French Quarter squalor in A Streetcar Named Desire 

No doubt about it, when you consider the trashiest plays in the American theater canon, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire has to figure in the discussion as surely as Tobacco Road. We can imagine the former glory of Belle Reve and Blanche DuBois from a multitude of petticoat sagas set on Southern plantations, but what we marvel at in Streetcar is Blanche's breathtakingly precipitous descent -- into poverty, depravity, booze and madness.

Directing the new Theatre Charlotte production, their first stab at Streetcar since 2004, Charles LaBorde and his design team strip Blanche's last refuge -- the Kowalskis' two-room apartment in New Orleans' fabled French Quarter -- of all but the slightest hint of romantic glow. Blanche must import the magic she craves so desperately, but the Oriental shade she drapes over a bare bulb doesn't mitigate the clapboard squalor of Chris Timmons' set design.

On the other hand, LaBorde isn't allowing himself -- or us -- to be sucked into the delusion that Blanche has fallen into a toxic den of mouth-breathing Neanderthals. Stanley drinks beer, plays cards, goes bowling, gets drunk and occasionally brutalizes the missus. Stella adapts to it all, tagging along when Stanley bowls, steering herself -- and Blanche -- out of harm's way for card-playing and drinking, and camping out at a neighbor's until her contrite husband begs her to return. Judging by the less feminist blues lyrics of the day, some with roots in the Big Easy, I'd say Stella wasn't the only married woman to make those choices, though I suspect her plantation origins aren't typical of the breed.

Amanda Nicastro, not the typical fragile blonde cast as Stella, is unusually convincing when she tells us that she fully grasps the choices she has made. We believe her confidence in Stanley, largely because J.R. Adduci as Stanley reminds us that Williams has packaged a certain amount of wiliness and card-playing prowess along with his ruthless brutality to enable his ultimate triumph over his more refined sister-in-law. No, these Kowalskis aren't a god and goddess living in squalor.

While Paula Baldwin doesn't go all the way to fiddle-dee-dee coquettishness as Blanche -- or even close -- she is notably more flamboyant than she was last year when she played Linda Loman opposite LaBorde's Willy. Turning up the squalor while turning down the melodrama works rather well for most of the evening, until Stella is at the hospital in labor while Blanche is at Stanley's mercy back at the shack. The brutality no longer strikes me as inevitable.

But it is as superbly staged as everything else. The supporting cast is rock solid, topped by a couple of gems. Vito Abate as Mitch, the most highly evolved of Stanley's buddies, beautifully calibrates all the trepidations and frustrations of an aging bachelor trying to reach first base with an elegant phony like Blanche. Playing both the paperboy and the Doctor, Scott McCalmott is yummy timidity when we first see him and gentle authority later on, ironically underscoring Blanche's dependence on the kindness of strangers.

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