Linda Purl met Tennessee Williams as a teenager, but she has never before appeared in one of his plays, which makes her performance here that much more amazing. Blanche DuBois is arguably the King Lear of women's roles, a mountain that only the fearless dare ascend. Purl scales it with seeming effortlessness, reaching deep into the heart of this most heartbreaking of characters. Virtuosic but never showy, Purl excels in the small revealing moments and in the huge aria-like monologues. Williams' flowery, metaphor-heavy language flows off her tongue with astonishing ease, spinning comforting fictions even as her body language reveals the anguish and fear lurking under her refined demeanor.
Her partner in this dance to the death, Tom Astor, takes an unexpected and quite rewarding approach to playing Stanley Kowalski. He makes his entrance in a suit and tie, looking more like an upwardly mobile junior executive than the cave dweller Blanche describes. In place of Marlon Brando's animal magnetism, he creates a regular guy who can be quite good-natured—as long as he is getting his way. We see the resentment build in him as he endures Blanche's subtle put-downs, but his violent outbursts are unexpected and therefore more shocking.
As Stella, Tami Tappan Damiano is compelling in her confusion and desperation as she helplessly watches a war erupt between two people she loves. As Mitch, Stanley's friend and Blanche's suitor, Eric Lange could loosen up a bit, but his ferocity is frightening in the climactic scene in which he confronts Blanche about her unsavory past. Russell Pyle's set and Janet Doran-Veevers' costumes effectively evoke the era and help define the characters.
Director James O'Neil decided to perform the work uncut, which makes for a long evening (more than three hours) but a deeply satisfying one that gradually builds to a remarkable level of intensity. He uses symbolism sparingly but well, as when, in the final confrontation between Blanche and Stanley, she cowers on a kitchen chair, clutching an armload of her dresses and scarves as a flimsy shield against his looming power. It's a fine way of reinforcing Williams' point: The sophistication those outfits symbolize is no match for physical savagery.
That theme makes this a particularly potent play to present today, when violence is being celebrated as an effective way to reinforce our supremacy and relieve our fears. The dynamics Williams dramatizes are every bit as present in 2003 as they were in 1947, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered. As presented by the Rubicon's superb team of artists, Streetcar feels like an anguished cry in the dark for compassion and civility—one we desperately need to listen to.
"A Streetcar Named Desire," presented by the Rubicon Theatre Company at the Laurel Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Wed. 7 p.m., Thurs-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Apr. 26-May 25. $28-43. (805) 667-2900.