The soulful strains of a loping Sidney Bechet soprano sax set the mood for dusk in the French Quarter, and once again Blanche DuBois arrives upon “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte has mounted the classic Tennessee Williams drama for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey in a bold and crisp production that reaffirms the play’s stature and durability.
Monte, who worked with Williams on a career retrospective at the Williamstown Theater Festival a year prior to the playwright’s death, boasts fierce dedication to atmosphere, nuance and interpretation. She has grasped the drama’s naturalism, its poetic rhythms, the searing sexual undercurrents, and — despite the work’s obvious and inescapable familiarity — her staging is rich with fresh insight.
Returning to the role she played 11 years ago for Chicago’s Steppenwolf, Laila Robins offers an astonishing portrait of Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle in conflict with her sister’s brutish husband. Less fluttery, less ethereal and perhaps less vulnerable than many Blanches before her, the incandescent Robins is a wistful wounded butterfly, bringing heartbreaking poignancy to her ultimate defeat.
The scene with the young newspaper collector (played with sweet innocence by Justin Clark) is arguably one of the most singularly exquisite moments in theatrical history; Robins plays it with an airy flirtatiousness that stunningly reveals Blanche’s harbored desperation.
There’s nicely balanced support, notably from Gregory Derelian as Stanley Kowalski, the quick-tempered brother-in-law. The actor manages to avoid the obvious comparisons to Marlon Brando that hamper many actors in the role, displaying brawny vigor and raw primitive instincts, his crude humor carrying a salty appeal.
Blanche’s naive suitor is nicely etched by Robert Clohessy, repeating the role he acted a decade ago for Hartford Stage. He first appears as a shy mamma’s boy and later reveals a lion’s roar as the duped gentleman caller. Blanche’s sister Stella is given earthy sexual appeal by Nisi Sturgis, revealing a fervent passion for Stanley.
Technical assets are fine, from Bruce Auerbach’s dim lighting to the cramped two-room flat designed by Harry Feiner, while Hugh Hanson’s lovely costumes help define Blanche, with her clinging robes and fluttery frocks. Crescent City flavor is heightened by musical snippets ranging from a ramblin’ piano rag to a teasing phrase plucked from Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight.”