It's good enough for the European Union, but is it good enough for Washington? More or less, yes: The Keegan Theatre, which recently returned from touring Ireland and Northern Ireland with "A Streetcar Named Desire," has done a creditable job with the Tennessee Williams masterpiece.
Audiences heading to the Church Street Theater shouldn't expect a little piece of eternity to be dropped into their hands -- to invoke a line from Blanche DuBois -- but a couple of persuasive performances and intelligent direction by Eric Lucas and Mark A. Rhea make for a largely gratifying three hours.
Admittedly, Kerry Waters turns in an absurdly affected depiction of Blanche, the play's disintegrating Southern belle. Equipped with a ghastly accent that seems to wander through Mississippi via Galway, Waters occasionally looks and sounds like a parody of the character, so coy and histrionic are her mannerisms. Especially in the play's early scenes, she blinks coquettishly at nothing, converses while apparently studying the floor and drawls her lines so that the pitch plunges identically at the end of every sentence. She does let the caricature thaw a bit toward the end, daring to talk in a less stilted fashion as Blanche's madness amps up.
And the explosion of hysteria during Blanche's final confrontation with her admirer Mitch (Lucas) deserves a nod for sheer gutsiness.
Fortunately, Susan Marie Rhea and Mark Rhea, who happen to be married, are vastly more plausible and engaging as Stella and Stanley Kowalski, Blanche's sister and brother-in-law. With his hangdog look and a sardonic grin that draws on only half his mouth, Rhea makes an unnerving Stanley, and he gives an interesting, whimpering spin to the bellow ("Stella!") that Marlon Brando made famous. From the first scene between him and Susan Rhea's believably artless Stella, as the two Kowalskis fling their arms around each other and collapse on the bed, you can sense their almost narcotic connection.
Even when that sexual current courses more subtly, both actors maintain a charged presence by listening attentively to the others on the stage.
While not ringing quite as true, Lucas fidgets and stammers appropriately as Mitch, and the other cast members contribute workmanlike portraits of neighbors, poker buddies and passersby, the representatives of a raffish New Orleans. As Blanche's tragedy unfolds, jazzed up by whiffs of moody piano music (Tony Angelini's sound design is a little abrupt), you usually can sense the surging sexual tension, and the power struggles, between the characters. And Shadia Hafiz's costumes -- patterned sundresses for Stella; white, gauzy gowns and prim stockings for Blanche; blue-collar casual for the men, etc. -- emphasize personality and hint at class conflict.
Supplying an atmospheric backdrop is George Lucas's street-and-tenement set, which looks as if it's held together with Scotch tape but nonetheless boasts some expressive features: the rusty fan churning in the bedroom; the pictures hung askew; the unevenly applied white paint on the walls. Dan Martin's lighting galvanizes this tableau with sultry color. The reds that flood one of Stanley's poker games provide an especially fitting touch of decadence and foreboding.
"There are very few nearly perfect plays. 'Streetcar' is one of them," playwright Robert E. Lee once asserted. Keegan's flawed but watchable "Streetcar" suggests that Williams's hothouse flower of a drama is also more sturdy than one might suspect.
A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Eric Lucas and Mark A. Rhea. Original music by Matt Rippetoe.
About three hours. Through Nov. 26 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-527-6000 or go to www.keegantheatre.com.