Artists Repertory Theatre's decision to set A Streetcar Named Desire in a mental hospital sounds gimmicky—like a beatnik version of Hamlet, or My Fair Lady as performed by clowns.
The show is staged as a flashback experienced by an institutionalized Blanche DuBois. For the first half of the play, this does indeed feel like a gimmick, and one that hardly justifies itself. A doctor sits in a chair in front of the stage, observing the action; instead of the squalor in which we expect to find Stella and Stanley, the set is grim and institutional. Otherwise, business unfolds as usual between Stella, her husband Stanley, and her unstable, high-strung sister, Blanche. Director Jon Kretzu didn't change a word of Tennessee Williams' script, and the vitality that all three principles lend to their characters gives no hint that they are mere shadows of Blanche's memory.
There are some really fantastic performances here, notably the towering Andrea Frankle as Blanche, selfish and vulnerable. Val Landrum brings a pragmatic likeability to Stella, while Mic Matarrese's Stanley seethes and struts with enough conviction that I eventually forgave him not looking like Marlon Brando.
Though the lighting occasionally cuts to a washed-out institutional glare, fortunately we are spared the drab attire of the mental ward. Ashley Wase's costumes are gorgeous, and Frankle's Blanche sways and drops in her dresses like a flower slowly losing its bloom.
In addition to the asylum setting, Kretzu has the ghost of Blanche's dead husband appearing whenever she reminisces about him. The idea of Blanche flashing back to her own hallucinations is confusing—but it's to Kretzu's credit that, as with the setting, what looks like a gimmick turns out to be a well-considered risk.
There are quibbles: Blanche's breakdown scene is overwrought (tattered party dress, disco ball); the first act is looooong; and the flashback conceit breaks down entirely at moments when Blanche isn't onstage. All things considered, though, you're unlikely to see a better version of A Streetcar Named Desire that the one playing at Artists Rep right now. Even if not all of Kretzu's risks pay off, at least he's taking them.