It's better to see a play than to read one, and The Arlington Players are offering an opportunity to see "A Streetcar Named Desire," arguably Tennessee Williams's greatest work, done well.

"Streetcar" is a disturbing play, and explores a question that worried Williams all his life: What will become of a sensitive, tender soul in a country that seems headed more and more to crass materialism?

The former qualities are realized in the glorious character of Blanche duBois; the latter in the impressive character of Stanley Kowalski.

Stanley was not a sympathetic fellow when he was introduced in 1947, and director Rosemary Hartman has Todd Berger give a low-key performance as Stanley. He is blunt, crude, and much concerned with his own comforts, but less present is the brutal destructive animal whose appetites are barely under control.

Blanche is a tour-de-force role: she enters exhausted; she has lost her job, her home, her reputation. She is, in today's parlance, burned out. She drinks, takes long baths, cannot face the truth of her situation and instead she fantasizes. She does all this with grace, charm and great humor.

Stanley believes she is a tramp with fine airs, and resents her. She begins to form a relationship with one of his friends, Mitch, but Stanley -- having sleuthed out her past (her dismissal from her teaching job was over the seduction of a 17-year-old, and she had many questionable rendezvous at a certain hotel) -- tells Mitch all, which destroys the romance.

The night that her sister, Stella, goes to the hospital to have her baby, Stanley rapes Blanche. A few days later, Blanche is taken away by a doctor and a nurse -- clearly out of her mind.

It is rare to see in community theater a performance as rich as Ann Todora gives as Blanche. She is very funny -- a point many professional actresses have missed -- desperate, silly, furious and tender. An enormous task well done.

Susan Himes-Powers brings marvelous good nature and warmth to Stella. Sheira Venetianer does splendid work as Stella's neighbor, Eunice. Eric L. Blaycock is a fine Mitch, a soft and decent man, who feels for Blanche and (though he felt betrayed by her lies) is undone by what happens to her.

Lou Stancari has created a spectacular set: space for the actors is most generous, though the harshness of the environment is rather understated. Chris Macey deserves special mention for costumes, especially those designed for Blanche, which could hardly be bettered. Set dressings by Avery Burns and properties by Barbara Hyde are also absolutely to the point.

There are some difficulties: when Stella comes back to Stanley and his bed, it is a pity that they must remain on stage in light spill. Clearly the gentle motions executed by the actors, who are still on stage and feel they must do something, would not be what is going on, but what is going on cannot be shown.

At the end, after Blanche is taken away, Stanley and Stella are in a nearly commercial pose of bliss. Does director Hartman mean to suggest that all will be well in the future between these two? Williams is braver than that: Blanche may be gone, but no one she ever touched will be the same again.

"A Streetcar Named Desire" through Feb. 16. The Arlington Players, Thomas Jefferson Junior High School, 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. For information and reservations, call 549-1063.