Philly's Arden Theatre's Run of 'Streetcar' Back on Track

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 18, 2022

The Arden Theatre Company reopens its doors this month with Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" after being shut down in March 2020 — after just one preview performance — as all theaters in Philadelphia were closed due to COVID.

Shortly before previews were to begin, Arden director Terrence Nolen talked about the play, the cast, and the return after almost two years waiting to resume the performance run. "Initially we were anticipating it being a temporary closure," Nolen said. "First thinking it would be two weeks, then a month," Nolen recalled. Then, of course, it was evident that the shutdown would be indefinite.

Remarkably, Nolen noted that most of the cast was able to come back for the relaunch of the month-long performance run, which reopens the Arden's Otto Haas Stage.

Nolen has assembled a cast of some of Philadelphia's most accomplished actors which includes Katharine Powell and Matteo Scammell, who both lead the cast as Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. Emilie Krause portrays Blanche's sister Stella, and Akeem Davis plays Stanley's army buddy Mitch. The supporting cast includes Taysha Marie Canales, Walter DeShields, Giacomo Fizzano, Joilet Harris, Brian McCann and Victor Rodriguez, Jr.

For the return to the stage, Nolen maintained daily COVID safety protocols among the cast, artists, and stage staff for every run-through with "a whole series of ongoing testing protocols — we've taken every precaution possible," Nolen assured.

"Rehearsing in masks was not what we normally do, so there have been challenges, but every day of rehearsal has been incredibly worthwhile. The Haas Theater, Nolen noted, now has a state-of-the-art air filtration system that coincidently was already booked to be installed in summer 2020.

Nolen said everyone went beyond simply picking up where they left off. The "choreography" of the scenes, which depict the expressive and libertine characters of New Orleans' French Quarter as characterized by Williams, was, Nolen said, at such a refined level by the cast members in their previous preparation in 2020, that Nolen was even able to "...go deeper into elements of the play."

Nolen has re-envisioned it with a more fluid timeline that allows it to play as less of a period piece. The spacious Haas Stage has been reconfigured in the round for the production (with set design by Paige Hathaway) which Nolen said illuminates some of the play's themes of "three people living in this space with no place to avoid each other." Nolen noted that Blanche's feeling of alienation and isolation, is in many ways more universal than ever.

"It remains a masterpiece and you still get lost in it. And how many discoveries there are in the text. How detailed and specific the characters are in his work," Nolen explained.

As much research as Nolen routinely does for all of his productions, he avoided watching Elia Kazan's highly acclaimed movie version of 'Streetcar' starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh as Stanley and Blanche. But he said, since his play was already set, "I watched it again a couple of months ago, because our production was already so clear in my mind; I was curious to see it again, and I wasn't worried about it influencing me."

Aside from the play being one of Williams' most dramatically poetic scripts, it also has aspects that were too much for the film version in 1951. Elia Kazan, who directed it on Broadway and would direct the film version for Warner Brothers, had to accede to the studio's prurient censorship. One of the details cut out of the movie was the explicit references to Blanche's dead husband Alan who shot himself because he was gay, and Kazan could only suggest the sexual violence suffered by Blanche that leads to her breakdown.

The power of Williams' full play is only fully realized on stage. One thing that made the relaunch easier was having "the benefit of rehearsing the show in the theater leading up to the reopening," Nolan explained. "All the business, prop choreography, we had worked it out pretty well in 2020." The pacing and all the physicality in the play is already "in their bodies."

Nolen said that coming back after the pandemic allowed them "to explore the moments that are resonating in a unique way or hadn't completely figured out," and to focus on subtleties and what is most important about this work, "historically, and now."

Following the run of 'Streetcar,' the Arden season continues with R. Eric Thomas' new comedy 'Backing Track' and Jocelyn Bioh's 'SchoolGirls; or, The African Mean Girls Play.' Nolen is also a widely praised director of musicals by Stephen Sondheim and he will be finishing the Arden season with his revival of Sondheim's 'Into The Woods.'

"A Streetcar Named Desire" opens on January 19 and runs through February 13, 2022 at The Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. 2nd St. Philadelphia PA. For more information, visit the Arden website.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.