BY CHRIS HANNA
The relationship between the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen is historically complicated, never more so than when major studios attempt film adaptations based on dramatic masterpieces. Among a mixed bag of results, Warner Brothers’ 1951 rendering of A Streetcar Named Desire stands out still as its gold standard. Cinephiles and thespians, alike, agree that Elia Kazan’s classic mined the best of both genres. Marlon Brando’s star turn performance, alone, ensures the continued popularity of the film and Williams’ story well into the future.
That said, that black and white masterpiece - so groundbreaking in its time - has subsequently jailed the original play inside archaic iconography that has tamed its impact for later generations. Once in the can, after all, films can’t continue to change as society does, which leaves even the best stories outdated in today’s quick changing world. If Streetcar is remembered only as the melodramatic struggle between a powerless ingenue and a muscled brute, then the play’s original ferocity fades within the contemporary camp of soap opera stereotypes and Calvin Klein print ads. The psychological nuance of Williams’ complex masterpiece becomes all but lost.
Live stage plays, on the other hand, evolve with each freshly imagined production. As theater artists interpret dramatic masterpieces, they naturally bring the values and preoccupations of their times. Although a play’s dialogue and stage directions remain constant, their meaning changes in our hands. Afterall, Hamlet names the players, not playwrights, as the abstract and brief chronicles of the times (I2:2).
In approaching this staging, I have strived simply to mine the contemporary reality of Williams’ characters and poetry. If characterizations and stagings don’t adhere to expectations established by the Kazan film, I encourage audiences to consider the implications of those differences for today’s world. To audiences arriving freshly to the story, I welcome you into its timeless journey unfazed. In either case, I am grateful to the actors and designers who have dedicated their craft and intelligence towards this discussion on behalf of the Hampton Roads’ audiences. If it is true that individual communities receive the theater companies they deserve, then this region should feel very proud at this moment in Virginia Stage’s history.