Director John Miller-Stephany's staging of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Guthrie Theater mines the play's dark drama for -- of all things -- comedy.

But the problem with his approach is not the humor that he finds in Tennessee Williams' classic about downward mobility, madness and rowdy working-class life in mid-century America. In this "Streetcar" -- which boasts an indelible turn by Gretchen Egolf as Blanche DuBois, with Ricardo Chavira as her antagonist, Stanley Kowalski, and Stacia Rice as Stella -- the laughter is part of a strenuous impulse to keep things from going too deep. For my money, such an approach ultimately puts the work on discount, like mounting "Carmen" as a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

The whole effort is paced and orchestrated like a work for TV. Stanley is not so much a menacing figure who is violent to women, possibly triggering a final mental breakdown, but a genial fellow who just drinks a little too much. The most egregious example of this is not even something we see onstage but what we hear in the disturbed darkness.

It happens immediately after the scene-ending assault that involves Stanley and Blanche. The lights go out, freezing the image of Stanley in flagrante delicto. The interlude is immediately filled, as if this were some TV sitcom, with peppy, straight-ahead jazz. The upbeat, mood-changing music is wholly inappropriate. It has the effect of denying us the space to think any further about the horror we have just witnessed.

Perhaps the director has bought too deeply into Blanche's flights of fantasy. "I don't want realism," Blanche says. "I want magic. ... I don't tell truths. I tell what ought to be truth."

Blanche is an off-kilter faded belle who visits Stella and Stanley in their humble two-room lodgings in New Orleans. Blanche comes bearing secrets along with trunks of furs and trinkets, memories of the plantation that the family once owned. She is surprised by many things, including the fact that violence is foreplay for her sister and the brother-in-law she regards as subhuman. For his part, Stanley immediately goes after her, stalking her like prey.

With a performance both poetic and ethereal, Egolf delivers an excellent Blanche. Moving with the lyricism of a dancer, she limns her character's descent into madness tipped over by violence. Her fairy-tale movements extend her words, which are things to savor.

The handsome Chavira subdues some of the hard edges of Stanley. He plays the role in a limited range, with some charm, even if it's hard to like a character who lives up to some of the names that Blanche calls him. And Chavira's rereading of classic lines, like gradually coming to yell his wife's name, "Stella," after the famous drunken poker game in which she escapes him and runs upstairs, puts a new, lighter gloss on this classic scene.

Rice's Stella is a captive of her place and time, who takes Stanley's roughness as part of her sexual satisfaction, telling Blanche, "I wish you'd stop taking it for granted that I'm in something I want to get out of."

The production has many evocative touches. When Blanche tells would-be beau Mitch (Brian Keane) about the suicide of her young, gay husband, the projected shadow of her clutching hand seems ghostly.

Such moments make it all the more disappointing that this "Streetcar" goes off course.