I don't know if you could say that Emilia Sargent was born to play Blanche DuBois, but it sure seems that way in Tampa Repertory Theatre's A Streetcar Named Desire. Sargent is absolutely luminous as Tennessee Williams' tragic Southern belle.
In some ways, Sargent's tour de force comes out of nowhere. I have seen her give excellent performances through the years — as Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, one of the lesbian lovers in A Boston Marriage, as Vivian Leigh in Orson's Shadow — but nothing prepared me for such a revelation in one of theater's most demanding and iconic roles.
With her fine-boned features, alabaster complexion and bright red hair, Sargent is a rare beauty. She brings a mix of neurotic delicacy and a spine of iron to Blanche that provides a worthy match for her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, played by Christopher Swan. Not only does she soar in dramatic speeches on death and funerals or "long, rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour but a little piece of eternity dropped in our hands," but there's also a flirtatious, conspiratorial quality in her scenes with Swan's Stanley that can be hilarious, as when she muses on his astrological sign: "Capricorn — the goat!"
Any actor playing Stanley, of course, must labor in the Method acting shadow of Marlon Brando, whose portrayal in the 1951 movie was so influential, but Swan, dressed in a bowling shirt, hands on hips, glowering at the preposterous intruder on his manly domain, skirts any comparison by giving a relatively modest performance. Instead of trying to dominate the claustrophobic psychic space, he leaves plenty of room for Sargent's Blanche to light up the French Quarter with her poetic presence.
Jack Holloway turns in a strong performance as Mitch, the cloddish gentleman caller smitten by Blanche until gossip from her nymphomaniac past turns him against her. When Blanche relates the story of her husband's suicide, and Sargent falls into Holloway's arms and gazes rapturously up into the lights, it's pure magic.
Unfortunately, actors in the supporting cast are not up to the level of the three principal players. For the most part, their deficiencies don't distract too much, but Danielle Calderone's tentative, girlish performance as Stella, Stanley's lust-besotted wife, is a problem.
This Streetcar is nothing fancy, but director C. David Frankel has obviously pondered the play deeply. His staging includes such telling touches as a dreamy wordless interlude of Blanche changing into a summer frock to a hot sax solo. The set (by Ned Averill-Snell, also playing the doctor who takes Blanche away to a mental institution) is sparely furnished, with some hanging light bulbs and two large splatters of gray-white paint on the floor.
• There's another production of A Streetcar Named Desire in the bay area. It's directed by Kevin Renken and stars Tiffany Faykus as Blanche at St. Petersburg City Theatre, where the final three performances are this coming weekend. $10, $22. (727) 866-1973; splt.org.
• A summertime series of six encores of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD screenings begins with Donizetti's Anna Bolena, starring Anna Netrebko, at 6:30 p.m. today at Park Place Stadium 16 in Pinellas Park, and Citrus Stadium Park Mall 20 and Hyde Park Cinebistro, both in Tampa. The rest of the series: Le Comte Ory (June 20), Don Giovanni (June 27), Les Contes d'Hoffmann (July 11), Lucia di Lammermoor (July 18) and Der Rosenkavalier (July 25). $12.50. Information: fathomevents.com.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.