Some things are so iconic that you can feel you've experienced them, even if you've never been close. You do this through photographs, through storytelling, through Wikipedia rabbit holes, through film. It's true of the French Quarter — that bastion of New Orleans nightlife that, to the uninitiated (and even to many of the initiated), is booze-soaked and draped with colorful beads. And it's also true of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams play made famous by a raging Marlon Brando in his prime, breathing fire and chewing scenery in the 1951 film of the same name.
But just as there's more to the Big Easy than Mardi Gras, there's more to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play than Brando. That's what Brown University Theatre Professor Lowry Marshall hopes audiences will find with her production of Streetcar. Lowry says that it's her in-tention to explore both Williams' original script — rather than his later collaboration with director Elia Kazan (and, on Broadway, designer Jo Mielziner) that created the film — as well as the broader character of New Orleans itself.
Lowry, herself a product of the South, says that directing Streetcar is a “thrill” for her, fulfilling a lifelong dream. “I've wanted to direct it for God knows how long.”
To prepare, she took a sojourn to experience New Orleans in its off-season in the dog days of summer, when the tourists shy away from the searing heat and the locals live their lives unmolested by the never-ending party. She says she wanted to truly get in touch with the city and its character, along with doing some research about Williams himself and the place he lived, loved and wrote about. While she was there, she says the difference between Williams' collaboration and the original script came into focus. “It's interesting looking at that, and thinking about how everything old might be new again,” she says.
For the production at Brown, Marshall says she hopes to accomplish that by having cast “an ensemble of people who would make up sort of the surrounding community,” making the city itself much more of a character in the production than it is in the film. Doing so also “makes opportunities for students, which I love to do, and get some of the younger students involved in certain ways.” Having made the ensemble a musical one, creating “a sound bed for the play,” she makes these opportunities more layered still. Lowry says she has “a lot of singers and instrumentalists,” but will be “careful not to overwhelm this incredibly masterful piece of dramatic writing.”
Though at the time of this writing the play's design process is in its early stages, Marshall said that in adapting the set, she envisioned something slightly grittier, truer to the initial vision before it was translated to the “rococo and frilly embellishments” that Hollywood audiences had experienced. And, in another departure from Hollywood's lens, Marshall has the added benefit of presenting the steamy, ethically complicated and sometimes violent plot without having to kowtow to the censorship Kazan and Williams faced.
For those who aren't familiar, Streetcar is an intimate, fiery drama that follows two women — the melodramatic and alcohol-sodden Blanche DuBois and her more submissive sister Stella. When Blanche comes to stay with Stella and her abusive husband, Stanley, a “fatal pas de deux” ensues, in the very apt words of Charlotte Thomas-Davison in the theatre arts and performance studies department's publicity arm. Marshall hopes that audience members who are familiar with any of the work's adaptations or other productions will have a “new opportunity to meet the play,” while those who have never experienced the celebrated work will have an enthralling first opportunity.
“I'm the sort of director who wants to put the play on stage and reveal what the playwright intended to the best of my ability,” says Marshall of her rendition of Williams' work. “It's a great story with incredible lessons about human behavior, and it requires us as the audience to think about things that we sometimes don't want to think about.”
Here Marshall is referring to a litany of uncomfortable topics that can make even the most stalwart theatergoers squeamish: death, domestic violence and the tension between family members that can turn the deepest love into the darkest animosity. Marshall sees these human concerns as very timely ones, as well, making the play a perfect fit for audiences now: “I think we live in a world where people take sides about things, and we're always looking to lay blame. You can see it in our politics, in our human interactions and our institutions…. And I think, in reality, more often than not, we're all complicit in one way or another.”