Photos by Katrina Robinson
(Click on thumbnail photo to start slide show.)
By Lisa Purchase Kelly

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields."Blanche DuBois

I have seen neither the movie nor the stage version of  A Streetcar Named Desire, but (like everyone else) I can quote the famous lines: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." I (like everyone else) can picture Brando, in black and white angst, in a dirty t-shirt, screaming "STELLLLLAAAAAAA". It's a classic, an American standard, part of our cultural literacy. But that's all I know of it, which amounts to exactly nothing at all. I don't know why it's a classic, or what it's about … but I'm suddenly very interested to find out. I spent a full two hours chatting with director David Rzeszutek about life, theater, and the upcoming SVSU production of  Streetcar. I liked what I heard and came out of the conversation with a desire of my own, to bear witness to this classic drama and to enjoy some serious storytelling on the SVSU main stage. Local Transportation Turns Train-wreck

As it turns out, this story is not for the faint of heart; it ain't pretty. In gritty, frenetic, steamy 1947 New Orleans, the one-bedroom apartment inhabited by Stanley Kowalski and his pregnant wife Stella becomes a pressure cooker with the arrival of Stella's delusional and alcoholic sister, Blanche DuBois. The characters are pushed to unthinkable behavior: drunkenness, infidelity, lies, domestic violence, and rape (with some suicide and homosexuality lurking in the background), and Stanley and Blanche end up on a collision course that ends in tragedy. Bad stuff … these people must be monsters, right?

But these are not just the villains of the story; they are also the victims, just ordinary, intrinsically flawed human beings driven to extremes by some bad breaks and some bad choices. "There are no good guys, no bad guys," says David. "This is a play about misunderstanding."

Misunderstanding on a monstrous scale, the misunderstandings not just between individual people but between the ideas embodied in those individuals: misunderstandings that arise when worlds collide, when Old South meets urban industrial working class, when deportment meets brutish practicality, when pathological dependencies and long-held ideals collide with hard realities.

(If you've seen the movie, you might at this point be saying, "Wait a minute … there's no rape, no reference to homosexuality …". Not in the movie, there isn't. Adapted from the stage play in 1951, the movie was censored to exclude some of the more shocking elements of the play, and the ending was completely rewritten for the movie. So if you are a fan of the movie but have never seen the stage play, be prepared for some unexpected challenges … not the sanitized 50's version, this is the original Streetcar as it was meant to be seen, and it pulls no punches.)

Tennessee Williams' script won a Pulitzer, the movie won four Oscars, and the original stage production and its various revivals have won a score of Tonys and other awards. The universality of its characters has kept this play part of our cultural landscape for more than sixty years, and it looks to remain relevant far into the future: Shakespearean in scope, the characters are complex people we can recognize and identify with, even while being repulsed and horrified by their actions. This universality is the backbone of all great literature, all great characters. "Blanche is really a female Hamlet," says Rzeszutek, as she is unable to cope with her changing circumstances, fails to make the difficult decisions, and instead slides into delusion and, ultimately, defeat.

Taking on an Icon

This show is a tall order … how is the cast of young actors and their director (himself the new guy in town, hired to the SVSU Theatre Department a little more than a year ago) handling such weighty material? Rzeszutek said, "When we started working on this, I told the cast that I am terrified of it, I am as terrified of it as they are. Who wouldn't be? This play is a warhorse, a classic of American theater … it's a lot to live up to."

Indeed. How can a young cast of twenty-somethings hope to fill these iconic roles? Well, as it turns out, Brando was only 24 years old himself when he first took on the role of Stanley Kowalski, and he was not yet an American icon. His portrayal of sixty years ago was just one portrayal, and should not be the only interpretation available to us. Theater is meant to live and breathe and change: a truly well-written script cannot belong to one actor or one director or one production; it needs to be touched and used by many people and passed down to new generations to keep it vital and alive.

This generation of the SVSU Theatre Department is more than capable of bringing this play to life. This theater program has proven itself to be a magnet for genuine talent and has shaped that talent to launch the careers of several successful actors, stage managers, and other people currently working in theater around the country.These students have a wealth of training and theatrical experience under their collective belts. Rusty Myers, Danielle Schoeny, and Amanda Mueller, veterans of the SVSU stage (and soon bound for bigger things no doubt, as some are graduating this year) are joined in the lead roles by freshman David Ryan, priming the pump for up-and-coming underclassmen to continue to draw audiences to SVSU productions when the current veterans have moved on. And Professor Rzeszutek spoke enthusiastically of the set for Streetcar, putting his vision of an exploded, fragmented realism into the wondrously capable hands of SVSU's technical designer Jerry Dennis.

Special Offers

SVSU's production of  A Streetcar Named Desire includes two special offers. The first is a dinner premier on Wednesday November 17, beginning at 5:00pm with dinner at the Savoy restaurant followed by the premier performance of  A Streetcar Named Desire. Cost is $35.00, tickets must be purchased in advance at the Savoy restaurant, limited to 60 seats and available one night only. For further information (including menu) check out the event Facebook page "A Streetcar Named Savoy."

The second special event is a "talk-back" after the November 21 3:00pm Sunday performance. After the show the cast and director will be joined by a moderator on stage for a panel discussion of the show. They will be taking questions from the audience about the script, their individual performances, and this production in general. Anyone who comes to the Sunday performance is welcome to stay afterward and participate in the discussion.

A Streetcar Named Desire
sports a cast of twelve and plays on the main stage, the Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts. It runs Thursday November 18 through Sunday November 21, with performances at 7:30pm Thursday through Saturday, and a 3:00 performance on Sunday. Admission is $10.00 ($7.00 for Seniors and Students). For more information or to order tickets, please contact the Box Office at 989-964-4261.

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2010