When most people think of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” they likely picture an enraged yet magnetic Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski screaming, “Stella! STELLA!” However, the new Boston Court production of Tennessee Williams’ classic play is out to redefine theatergoers’ vision in a big way.
Director Michael Michetti plans to strip away decades of “Southern gothic gauze” to reveal striking themes of class, race and gender. In doing so, he hopes to reinvigorate the classic, which shocked audiences in its debut 70 years ago with its tale of a disturbed woman named Blanche DuBois who moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law Stanley while her reality crumbles around her.
By placing a traditional, 1940s-era Blanche within a contemporary, multicultural and urban environment familiar to modern audiences but foreign to her, this new production highlights the pertinence of this play for the current divided America.
“The way that I arrived at this approach is I always loved the play, looked at the material of the original production and how it was received at the time,” says Michetti. “There were things the audience then would see but we don’t see anymore. Blanche represents a dying way of life from plantations and the dying of an era. In the ’40s, plantations weren’t existing, demographics were changing and there were people of color and Polish people were seen as another race.
“When we see the play now, we don’t realize that was one of the primary struggles Williams was addressing: the pull between old and new ways of life, clinging to the past and the cities,” he continues. “We met Blanche briefly in New Orleans, he describes her way of appearance and said it was incongruous to the setting, so I thought ‘Let’s see how incongruous we can make her.’ Let’s represent our cities as they are now — diverse and multicultural and have a very different dynamic than this woman from 1940s rural Mississippi would be familiar with.”
“A Streetcar Named Desire” originally opened on Broadway in 1947. Directed by Elia Kazan, the show starred Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tandy won the Tony Award for best actress in a play.
In 1951, the play became a film, with Kazan again directing and Brando, Hunter and Malden reprising their roles. Vivien Leigh played Blanche in the film and won an Oscar for lead actress, along with Malden for supporting actor and Hunter for supporting actress. The play has also been adapted as an opera, ballet, and numerous times for television, but the Boston Court version might be one of the most radical interpretations yet — with African-American actor Desean Kevin Terry playing Stanley Kowalski in a production that looks at Blanche’s behavior in the context of current events.
For his part, Juilliard School graduate Terry is a prime example of the color-blind casting throughout the play. Fresh off a stint starring in a rare production of “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs” at Rogue Machine Theatre, he notes that while stepping into Brando’s shoes can be daunting, he feels ready to make his own mark in the role.
“Yes, Marlon Brando did play the role and I have multiple iconic lines, so as an actor— not just an actor of color– that’s definitely an intimidating feat,” says Terry. “I have been at times paralyzed by that notion and then times when we keep moving forward and just do my interpretation of it. I’m pretty comfortable that if I can’t beat Marlon Brando, I can’t feel terrible, because he’s one of the greatest actors ever to walk on this planet. But it’s also a great way to put a different play to people because of the direction and interpretation.”
“A Streetcar Named Desire” runs Saturday through March 25 at Boston Court Theatre, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 to $39. Call (626) 683-6801 or visit bostoncourt.com.