In 1947, “A Streetcar Named Desire” premiered for the first time at the Shubert Theater, just blocks away from the University Theatre where the show is opening this Thursday after five days of preview performances.
This will be the Yale Repertory Theatre’s first ever production of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play. “Streetcar” portrays the growing tension between fading beauty Blanche DuBois, played by René Augesen DRA ’96, and her sister Stella’s working class husband, Stanley Kowalski, played by Joe Manganiello. Manganiello, best known for his role on HBO’s “True Blood,” said he loves the show’s direct approach to confronting the “enmeshed” brutality and sexuality of his character.
“It creates a complex feeling in the audience,” Manganiello said. “You understand why Stella would be attracted to this guy … even if you’re ashamed to find him attractive. It’s not a black and white play.”
Mark Rucker DRA ’92, who has previously directed eight shows for the Rep, said “Streetcar” has been on the “top of the list” of plays he has dreamed of directing for many years. Though he first discovered the play as a “movie buff” enamored of the 1951 film, he said that for this production he avoided not only re-watching the movie but also looking at any other productions.
“It’s well known cause it’s so good,” Rucker said. “I wanted to really, really sink my teeth into the play.”
Rucker said he has found it exciting to make new discoveries about a play he believed he knew so well, especially about the nuances of Blanche and Stanley’s relationship which includes attraction as well as enmity. He added that he had never realized the importance of Stella’s role as a character stuck in the middle of the developing conflict.
Rucker flew out to Los Angeles to meet with Manganiello and talk about the role of Stanley, and said he was impressed by the actor’s passion for the play and the character. Manganiello said “Streetcar” is his favorite play, and that he has had a relationship with the show ever since he first played the role of Stanley 16 years ago. He said that every time he has performed the show it has struck him a different way: In rehearsing this production he said he has felt much more empathy toward Blanche than he did as a 21-year old.
“The play becomes a mirror to show how you develop as a person,” Manganiello said, adding that he hopes the perspective he has gained will give the character additional layers.
Manganiello first encountered the role as a Carnegie Mellon student. He said almost every student director asked him to be Stanley in “Streetcar” scenes they were directing for an assignment.
“When there’s an entire school to pick Stanleys from, and they’re all coming to me, I had to ask myself ‘What is it about this character?’” Manganiello said. “I think there’s a lot there instinctively. I don’t agree with Stanley, but I get it. I get why he is the way he is.”
“A Streetcar Named Desire” has several other historical ties to Yale, Steven Padla, the Rep’s director of communications, said in an email. Elia Kazan DRA ’33 directed both the original play and the film version with Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh. The play’s third scene was inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s celebrated painting “The Night Café,” which has been housed at the Yale University Gallery since 1961, Padla added. Rucker said both he and the designers viewed the work several times while imagining the set design, and hopes its “color and sensuality” infuses the production.
Rucker said the production’s challenge is to capture both the claustrophobia of the cramped apartment in which almost the entire action of the play takes place and the vibrancy of the city of New Orleans just outside.
“It’s looking at New Orleans in post-WWII America, in this neighborhood [where] all different kinds of people are forced to live together,” Rucker said. “It’s this new world where borders are loose.”
The set is built on a movable platform which shifts throughout the show to highlight the action on the street or in different parts of the house, depending on the scene.
Rucker said he is particularly excited about how many fellow School of Drama graduates are working on the show, including Augesen as Blanche, Sarah Sokolovic DRA ’11 as Stella and Adam O’Byrne ’01 DRA ’04 as Mitch, as well as others.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” will play at the University Theatre through Oct. 12.