Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1996
The San Diego Rep has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the Rep can look back at a roller-coaster ride that has at times entranced, enlightened or enraged audience members, critics and donors. Highlights include more than 130 productions, three theater venues, the longest-running show in San Diego theater history (“Six Women With Brain Death,” 1988), followed by a disastrously experimental season that resulted in a 50% loss of subscription audience and a $400,000 debt (in 1989, with much recouping of both since then), early appearances (and more recent benefits) by Whoopi Goldberg, local premieres of future Pulitzer Prize winners David Mamet and Sam Shepard, and a national reputation for culturally diverse programming. It’s been a wild ride.
Downing one of his multiple daily infusions of cappuccino, Rep co-founder and producing director Sam Woodhouse discusses his latest project: directing an interracial production of one of the most acclaimed plays of the American theater — Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” (through February 18). “It’s a further exploration of the personal-social-cultural-political intent of this theater,” Woodhouse explains. “You could go back to our first mission statement in 1976: ‘the revitalization and reinterpretation of seldom-seen classics.’ That certainly describes this project.”
The project is a daunting one. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is, according to Woodhouse (and legions of others) “a masterpiece,” written by America’s “most passionate and poetic writer of dramatic plays.” It is widely considered to be a brilliant, complex, highly autobiographical work, a study in dualities written by a tormented romantic who was spawned by a cruel, womanizing, alcoholic father and a smothering, dominating, iron butterfly mother. The playwright — like his great tragic heroine — twisted by desire, plagued by anxiety, living a life of illusion, embodied the extremes of human aspiration and frustration.
The central characters have themselves become classics of the American stage: Blanche DuBois, the fading Southern belle whose veneer of fluttering refinement masks emotional starvation and sexual rapacity; and Stanley Kowalski, her blue collar Polish brother-in-law, whose animal sexuality attracts her and ultimately destroys her. Caught in the crossfire between these provocateurs is sensible, sensual sister/wife Stella.
The play is always revived in the shadow of the original production, which opened in New York in 1947, featuring Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in heart-stopping performances. Also directed by Elia Kazan, the 1951 film version, though sanitized by the censors, was no less definitive (Vivien Leigh played Blanche). In a recent made-for-television movie, Jessica Lange was a wonderfully compelling Blanche, but Alec Baldwin was an ineffectual Stanley.
This play is a living, breathing battleground, between repression and release, romanticism and reality, desire and betrayal, the carnal and the spiritual. Williams’ characters speak a timeless poetry of the dispossessed, and though most people think of this as an archetypal Southern white play, its universality has inspired a wide array of international interpretations.
In “Williams in Ebony: Black and Multi-Racial Productions of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,'” Philip C. Kolin asserts that black or multicultural productions “open up the play to racial and social messages… substantially increasing ‘Streetcar’s’ electrifying power… As a representative of the Old South, Blanche carries with her a value system grounded in oppression… That Blanche could be black is reasonable; no race has a monopoly on shattered dreams.”
Clearly, there is a precedent for Woodhouse’s intercultural concept (he avoids ‘culturally diverse’ and ‘multicultural’ as “political hot-buttons”). He believes that the play was actually written with that intent.
In the opening stage directions, Williams describes New Orleans as “a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town.” The cast of characters includes “a Negro woman,” “a Mexican woman,” and Stanley’s card-playing buddy, Pablo Gonzalez. “While Tennessee Williams wasn’t writing a play about racial prejudice,” Woodhouse concedes, “certainly one of his major issues was class prejudice… I know New Orleans was one of the most intercultural, international, multilingual cities in America in 1947… Our production… will look and sound like contemporary intercultural America.”
That intention was easier stated than fulfilled. Woodhouse combed the country, looking for a Blanche who would be “voracious… an echo between power and fragility” and a Stanley who would “burn up the stage.” He found African American actress Pamala Tyson in L.A. and Anglo actor Matte Osian in New York. The rest of the multi-colored cast is local talent. Backing them up will be a “multi-period world beat,” a music palette of live jazz, blues, honky tonk, polka and Cajun echoed against an original score (by talented local composer Michael Roth) influenced by industrial urban rock.
Woodhouse scrunches up his face, struggling to express his intellectual and emotional response to this project. “This is a monstrously, wondrously challenging play. You can never exhaust the riches of this material. Williams was dealing with issues of education, class, gender, age and color… I hope the audience will be swept away and surrender to the sweeping passions of this incredible story.”
He’ll probably get his wish. As the play’s original director said in his 1988 autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life,” “There was no way to spoil ‘Streetcar.’ No matter who directed it, with what concept, what cast, in what language, it was always hailed… In the end, the play was the event… The play carried us all.”
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.