The Arden Theatre Company paused its production of A Streetcar Named Desire in March 2020 after a single preview performance. While the pandemic raged, it kept the set intact and waited. And waited some more, even as other local theaters began opening live indoor productions in the fall.

Now, in response to omicron, theaters around town, including the Walnut Street Theatre and Lantern Theater Company, are postponing shows. And the Arden, with COVID-19 protocols in place, is plunging ahead with its much-delayed Streetcar, whose beautiful but often unsettling production opened Wednesday night.

At its core, Tennessee Williams’ 1947 tragic masterpiece explores the tensions between reality and illusion and the carnal and the spiritual. In the cramped quarters of a working-class New Orleans apartment, the brutish but charismatic Stanley Kowalski (Matteo Scammell) faces off against an unwelcome visitor, his wife Stella’s fantasy-prone, emotionally fragile sister, Blanche DuBois (Katharine Powell).

Each is a deeply flawed character, and each is wise to the other almost from the start. Their interactions generate a combustible mix of antipathy and attraction, and their collision, when it comes, will prove disastrous. At least it will for Blanche, in a drama that highlights misogynistic tropes about gender and sexuality without transcending them.

Arden artistic director Terrence J. Nolen, who directs, has embodied Streetcar’s metaphorical lushness in an impressive physical production. Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting and Olivera Gajic’s costumes, especially her lovely ensembles for Blanche, are key to creating mood and character. Daniel Ison’s soundscape injects threateningly dissonant chords and the rattle of the streetcar.

The audience surrounds most of Paige Hathaway’s realistic but stark apartment set, leading to the usual auditory problems of theater-in-the-round staging. Voices become muffled when characters turn away, especially Emilie Krauss’s soft-spoken Stella, torn between her passion for her intermittently violent husband and her deference and concern for her troubled sister.

Nolen has expanded the casting of actors of color, taking a cue from Williams’ own stage directions about the “relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town.” He pushes the envelope by casting the excellent Akeem Davis as Blanche’s suitor, Mitch.

Nolen’s choice of a Black man as a potential romantic savior adds heightened stakes to a role that’s always been understood as an unlikely pairing for Blanche. Yet that contemporary twist clashes with the characters’ conflicted and old-fashioned views of female sexuality — seen as fine in the marriage bed, shameful in other guises. Blanche doesn’t help matters by targeting teenage boys or posing as a purer-than-thou aesthete who can’t own up to her own urges.

The leads in every Streetcar labor under the shadow of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, an impossible burden. Scammell’s Stanley has the charisma, the physical presence, and even some of the humor the role requires. But he doesn’t exude quite enough menace or desperation.

Blanche gets most of the play’s poetry. In her obsession with magic, illusion, and the creation of imaginary worlds, she is a stand-in for the artist. In her fruitless search for love, she should break our hearts. Powell brings technical skill and stamina to the depiction of a woman whose exaggerated mannerisms, aristocratic airs, and indiscriminate seductiveness are just a step or two removed from madness. But, in this production, the mannered facade is more convincing than the tender, romantic soul it veils.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” presented by the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2d St., through Feb. 13. Digital version available for streaming Feb. 14-27. Proof of vaccination with photo ID or a recent negative COVID-19 test required. Masks must be worn. Tickets: $18-$53. Information: 215-922-1122 or