Updated: Apr 23
CMP’s staging, directed by Michael Serna, starts March 18 and runs four weekends.
By Eric Marchese
Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” first exploded onto the American theater scene more than 70 years ago, and it was quickly burnished into the consciousness of anyone and everyone who knows and loves theatrical drama.
Postwar audiences were exposed to a new kind of theater of raw emotionalism as they watched the primitive, animalistic Stanley Kowalski brutalize his wife and her neurotic sister Blanche DuBois, a fragile Southern belle seemingly from a much earlier era – but whose very contemporary psychological makeup was being revealed to audiences under the harsh glare of the theater spotlight.
Orange County audiences will get a chance to see a fresh new production of the classic when it opens at Costa Mesa Playhouse on March 18.
“We’re looking at this play with fresh eyes and a modern lens,” director Michael Serna said. “This is not a ‘period piece,’ it’s a timeless, explosive drama. We’re not beholden to previous versions audiences might have seen – so don’t expect this to feel like the classic film or a more traditional revival. We want to make this story palpable and dangerous.”
Serna said his staging will explore “several key themes,” including “love, loss, sexuality, mental health and social status. While the backdrop of the play is New Orleans, these are human conditions that transcend time and location.”
The play’s focal character is Blanche DuBois, a once prominent and wealthy Southern belle who has suffered a series of personal tragedies, forcing her to leave her privileged background. When she moves in with younger sister Stella and Stella’s husband, Kowalski, her presence catalyzes the release of violent emotions.
The original Broadway production, directed by Elia Kazan and produced by Irene Mayer Selznick, opened late in 1947 in New Haven, Conn., and Philadelphia before its December 3, 1947, Broadway opening. Selznick had wanted Margaret Sullavan and John Garfield as Blanche and Stanley but settled on unknowns Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando. The original cast also boasted Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch.
The 1951 film adaptation of the play was almost a carryover of the Broadway staging, directed by Kazan and starring Brando, Hunter and Malden, with Vivien Leigh replacing Tandy as Blanche. The film captured Academy Awards for Leigh, Hunter and Malden, and its widespread exposure and popularity caused “Streetcar” to become known virtually worldwide.
Calling Williams “arguably the best American playwright,” Serna attributes the fact that Williams’ plays “are relevant and keep getting revived” to the consistent exploration of key themes that include “struggle, heartbreak and loss,” all of which, he said, “are universal.”
According to Serna, loss is the most palpable theme, although he said he has seen too many productions where the sense of loss devolves into melodrama, a pitfall he strives to avoid.
“Streetcar” is the most frequently performed of Williams’ works and among the 20th century’s most critically acclaimed plays. Virtually every one of his major plays has been adapted to film, and while Serna touts Kazan’s famed film version as “amazing,” he notes that “some people have that vision in their heads,” and that this can be an advantage but can also be a drawback.
“So much of ‘Streetcar’ is a part of our pop culture that even if you’ve never seen the play, you’ve still seen it because it always shows up in a montage of great films. It’s one of those plays that has been such a huge part of pop culture. Every page of the script has a quotable line.”
Does that audience familiarity – or perhaps even overfamiliarity – work against any new staging? And if that’s true, what does Serna deem the best ways to work around that possible obstacle?
“The familiarity is one reason why some audiences will come see it, I think. You know the lines, but do you know the context? How can we make you feel those moments anew and show you something you’ve never seen in this classic play? Those challenges are one of the reasons I wanted to direct this play,” and he and his cast “will make something very familiar feel new and fresh.”
In CMP’s production, Jeff Rolle Jr. and Holly Seidcheck are Stanley and Stella Kowalski, Kendall Sinclair is Blanche Dubois and Angel Correa is Mitch (Harold Mitchell). Rounding out the cast: Caesar Souza and Brooke Lewis as Steve and Eunice Hubbell, Jeff Tierney as Pablo Gonzales, Grayson Richmond as A Young Collector, and LeeAnn Russell as A Strange Woman. The staging will feature Serna’s set design, Aspen Rogers' lighting design, and Beatrice Gray’s costumes.
Serna has directed “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (at Huntington Beach Playhouse), but this is his first time directing “Streetcar,” which has long topped his wish list of plays to direct. The challenge of finding the right actor to portray Stanley had always held him back – until now.
After having cast and directed Jeff Rolle in “The Christians” and “A Behanding in Spokane” at CMP, Serna realized he finally had “that right kind of person” for the key “Streetcar” role. “He’s incredibly charming and has the acting intensity you need.”
Whenever approaching a stage classic, Serna strives for as much originality as possible. “My version is never gonna be influenced by other versions – Broadway productions or films.”
“I really look at anything I’m directing as the first (time that play is being staged).” He and his CMP company “decided we’re gonna start from scratch and do it the way Williams wrote it, and in a way that speaks to this audience and this cast.”
“Our production will embrace the New Orleans locale and its diversity, and our cast will give a unique vibe to our ‘Streetcar,’ reflecting their cultures and experiences and allowing that to influence their character portrayals.”
“I want to deliver a lively and passionate ‘Streetcar’ that feels more like the America of today, and not the America that was reflected on Broadway when the play premiered.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 37 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer and news reporter covering theater and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’
Location: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton Street, Costa Mesa
Run dates/curtain times: March 18-April 10. Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m., Sundays 2 p.m., Thursday March 31 8 p.m.
Tickets: $22 general (March 18 preview and March 31 show are pay what you will)
Information: 949-650-5269, costamesaplayhouse.com