Emilia Sargent stands out

The actress delivers the definitive Blanche DuBois in Tampa Repertory Theatre’s Streetcar.

It’s Blanche but it’s not Stanley. And it’s not really Stella either.

Of course, I’m talking about A Streetcar Named Desire — or more specifically, about the Tampa Repertory Theatre production currently playing at the HCC Ybor Studio Theatre. And the fact is, this is a production that boasts one brilliant performance — Emilia Sargent’s as Blanche DuBois — and a bunch of others that barely make sense at all. Christopher Swan’s Stanley doesn’t come across as working-class, Danielle Calderon is a nondescript Stella, and Jack Holloway seems too young to be Mitch, who supposedly was Stanley’s buddy in army days. On a set that’s nothing more than a bare stage littered with a few tables and chairs, this production looks slapdash and no more set in New Orleans than in New Mexico or New Caledonia. If it weren’t for Sargent, it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time.

But Sargent is splendid. And reason enough to be there.

You think no one can rival Vivien Leigh in the Elia Kazan film? Well, Sargent, in her own way, is every bit as convincing. She’s desperate and coquettish and half-crazy and a shrewd manipulator. She’s vain and self-deluding and haunted and mentally broken. She’s a mistress of disguise, who almost has Mitch persuaded that she’s cautious and virginal before Stanley comes along and exposes her as a nymphomaniac declared off-limits by the U.S. Army. And she’s a frighteningly tragic figure, whose fall began when she told her gay husband that he disgusted her, and who hits rock bottom before our eyes, raped by her nemesis and bundled off to an asylum. Sargent is Blanche as Tennessee Williams wrote her, and you may never see another live portrayal as definitive as this one.

If only the rest of the cast were near this level. Jack Holloway almost does the job: he plays Mitch as a nervous and clumsy naïf, surprised to find himself romancing a woman as sophisticated as Blanche, and ingenuously caught up in her spider’s web of deceit. But he’s too young for the part: Karl Malden in the film seemed (appropriately) a good decade older, and all the fine acting of which Holloway is capable can’t make us ignore the discrepancy.

Swan as Stanley is a different, and much more serious, problem. This usually excellent actor isn’t at all the low-class, animalistic “natural” man that Williams wrote — instead, he registers as a bourgeois white-collar worker, maybe an insurance agent, at home in a crisp shirt and tie, and speaking with an accent that’s more Down East Maine than down-South Louisiana.

As for Calderone’s Stella, she’s pleasant and a little dowdy, and not the least bit convincing as the woman who keeps sexually voracious Stanley satisfied on hot, sultry nights. As Pablo and Steve, the men who play poker with Stanley and Mitch, Jon Gennari and Matt Frankel are also miscast — too young again, and too poorly matched — and April Bender as Eunice lacks the instant complexity that this small part requires.

Fortunately, Adam D. Cain, in the very brief role of a collector for a newspaper, shares Sargent’s reality: when Blanche insists that he let her kiss him, his embarrassment and reluctance are palpable. And Ned Averill-Snell as the Doctor whose kindness Blanche famously relies on, is also first-rate. But like Cain, he has little stage time, and can’t much rescue the production.

And then there’s that set, or rather, that vaguely furnished, near-empty stage that’s supposed to represent the two rooms of the Kowalski household and the New Orleans outside of it. Sargent brings her world with her; so whenever she’s acting, you can pretty much forget this non-environment. But when the others are on stage, the set (credited to Snell) makes itself noticed, and you can’t help wondering why, if budget was the problem, something simple and abstract wasn’t devised instead.

But that’s the story of this Streetcar: Sargent shines and nothing much shines around her. I’m not sorry I saw the show — a Blanche like this is so stunning, all the rest is pretty much forgivable — but I can’t conscientiously recommend it either. If you love great acting, see it and be delighted. Or else stay home — till somewhere, on some stage, all the elements come together.

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