Arena Stage has wisely produced "A Streetcar Named Desire" as a period piece, even though its intent was to promote it to the ranks of masterpiece.
Certainly 30 years ago, Tennessee Williams' forceful play seemed likely to become a classic rather than a flash in the pan or a sociological curiosity - the other futures possible for major hits. In the Arena production, it is still powerful, still poetic, still sexy. But this is possible only because we are subtly reminded that this happened in a particular psychological climate that can no longer be taken for granted.
As such, it makes better nostalgia than "Grease," which is now back at the National Theater. You laugh at "Grease" because of the funny way a certain class of teen-agers behaved in the '50s. In 'Streetcar' you're up against what the thinkers and artists of the time believed, and it's much more hokey.
The "Streetcar" philosophy is that good sex makes up for everything else, a point not borne out in sexually freer times, and that it's dishonest to cover naked light bulbs (or sex) with fancy shades (or manners), a taste that does not jibe with the rising prices of Victorian furnishings. In speaking of William Inge, the other chief exponent of this period, critic Pauline Kael called the genre "neo-Freudian grotesque."
It's hard to imagine a 1978 audience sitting still for the idea that all any woman needs - or man, except that men also need poker games - is a good bang, but Arena's version, directed by Marshall W. Mason, has created a strong enough mood for the audience to enter. Originally, this liberty was allowed by a distance in space: Things could happen in Wiliams' South that would not be acceptable elsewhere. This has been replaced by a distance in time. This was not easy to do - the clothes are practically back in style, for instance - but the set is effective, and Stanley Anderson's Mitch is quint essential late '40s-early '50s.
Edward J. Moore must have known when he took the role of Stanley Kowalski that no matter how good he was, people would think, "Marlon Brando he's not." Well, it's true. But Diane Kagan, also against formidable competition (Jessica Tandy was Blanche DuBois in the play, Vivian Leigh in the film), has made her own mark on the part.