Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
What’s left to be desired from A Streetcar Named Desire?
The Tennessee Williams classic opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947, instantly earning both audience and critical acclaim. It earned Williams the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1948, before being adapted as a film in 1951. In its 72-year history, it has been revived on Broadway eight times and further adapted into two made-for-television movies. The Library of Congress added the film version to the US National Film Registry in 1999. And as almost any high-school student can attest, it remains a fixture in the canon, studied by class after class, year after year.
It’s clear that we have an abiding appetite for Desire, so it’s no accident that Soulpepper’s current production has been met with full houses. Set in New Orleans, the play centres on a fragile Southern belle Blanche Dubois, whose finances and marriage have failed. She looks to her younger sister Stella Kowalski for solace and sympathy, but finds that her values clash with those of Stella, who suffers at the hands of her brutish and abusive husband Stanley. Leah Doz plays the role of Stella. A graduate of the National Theatre School, she has already amassed a considerable repertoire of roles in theatres and festivals across Canada – and she has done so with acclaim, as in her standout performance as Jean Fordham in Soulpepper’s recent production of August: Osage County.
As she affirms in our interview, her self-identification as a bi-racial woman adds a nuanced complexity to her portrayal of Stella – especially in relation to her husband Stanley’s Polish ethnicity, which is derided in the Forties era of the play. This considered production, directed by Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha, widens the perspective for diverse Toronto audiences, who should connect easily to the play’s exploration of marriage, sexuality, morality, and the dynamics and imbalance of power – topics which resound as loudly today as they did in 1947. Shortly after the production’s opening, she spoke with us about her thoughtful and deliberate approach to the role of Stella in our current climate, and the enduring truths within Williams’ lauded play.
SesayArts: Let’s start with your character Stella Kowalski. What is your attraction to the role, and what is your approach to playing her?
LD: There are parts of Stella’s nature – her submission and unconditional devotion to a man who abuses her that are challenging aspects of female humanity to reveal as an actress, especially in our current social-political climate of female empowerment where one can easily pass judgment on a woman for defending her abusive marriage. Yet, Stella is tethered to Stanley, willingly, and I understand why she is.
I was attracted to the challenge of exploring this universal part of her humanity: the attraction to violence, the desperate need to be loved and find security, even and especially in dangerous places. My approach to playing her is as it is for all roles… I start with what I know, with what feels personal to me and the parts of my life that sync with the character’s, and then when a text is as perfect as Williams’, you just follow it verbatim….
The biggest challenge is to keep softening into her skin… she has a relentless tenderness toward her husband and her sister; she is subservient, submissive, and these qualities are actually how she finds power and agency in her world. Many, many women live this way, and any resistance I’ve had to revealing this has been my biggest work in playing her. It would be easy for a contemporary audience to pass judgment on Stella for staying with Stanley. But she finds herself in a set of circumstances within her life in which she believes she has a very valid list of reasons why she stays and endures.
SesayArts: A Streetcar Named Desire was written in 1947 and explores many themes – including the clash of values of the old south and the new south – that we might not think much about nowadays. How do you think younger, contemporary audiences of Toronto will relate to this play? What would you like them to know about the production?
LD: I think this play challenges contemporary audiences because we would like to think we’ve come a long way in the evolution of our humanity since 1947, but Streetcar is still a masterpiece for a reason…. Williams dared to write this story about desire and what we’ll do in the name of our desire.
No matter how far the feminist movement has come, violence against women is still pervasive. I feel the risk in our current zeitgeist is that we still haven’t allowed women or men to dialogue about the nature of our desire, and to admit that this desire has no morality… we want what we want… yet we’re quick to polarize what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’, and we so desperately do not want to be seen as immoral that we will not admit the thoughts we have, the cravings we fight, the abuse we endure; and this leads to repressed shame, and then inevitably to some form of violence against ourselves or others.
Williams has intended the opposite of this repression: airing our desire for open discussion through three characters who succumb to these desires – he has purposely not written a hero or a villain in this play. We are in desperate need of dialoguing about our desire, and asking more questions about this part of our humanity rather than condemning and judging it; only then do we have a hope in coming to terms with it, and reducing the amount of violence committed.
SesayArts: What is a line of dialogue or moment in the play that, to you, sums up Stella’s character?
LD: ‘There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sort of make everything else seem – unimportant.’ Stella dares to say this to Blanche the morning after Stanley’s beaten her… I don’t think a lot of people would dare admit this about the forgiveness they find in the power of sex within their relationships.
SesayArts: The final word is yours. What question do you wish I had asked you that I didn’t?
LD: I’m a half-Black, biracial woman playing Stella. It’s a unique casting choice on the part of our director, Weyni Mengesha, that I feel supports Williams’ text. It’s a unique lens through which we can see why Stella tries to bring Blanche and Stanley’s worlds into coexistence. Stella tries to convince Blanche, whose notions about the world are built on the upper-class Southern plantation the two of them were raised on, that she can find a way to live with Stella’s working-class Polish husband. At that time in the 40s, right after WWII, anti-Polish sentiment was extremely high.
Stella tries to convince Stanley of the same thing about Blanche. Stella ultimately fails at convincing either of them that peace is possible, but there’s something about the universal understanding as a mixed-race individual that fuels her hope, even if in vain, that these worlds can mix, and it’s a perspective I hope to continue infusing our production with.
News You Can Use
What: A Streetcar Named Desire, Written by Tennessee Williams│Directed by Weyni Mengesha│Assistant Director: Tanya Rintoul│Set Designer: Lorenzo Savoini│ Costume Designer: Rachel Forbes│Lighting Designer: Kymberly Purtell│Sound Designer: Debashis Sinha│Music Director: Mike Ross │Fight Director: Simon Fon│Dialect Coach: Diane Pitblado│Alexander Coach: Kelly McEvenue│Stage Manager: Arwen MacDonnell
Performed by Oliver Dennis (Doctor), Leah Doz (Stella Kowalski), Mac Fyfe (Stanley Kowalski), Kaleb Horn (Young Collector), Sebastian Marziali (Pablo), Lindsay Owen-Pierre (Steve Hubbell), Gregory Prest (Mitch), Amy Rutherford (Blanche Dubois), Sate (Nurse)
When: On stage until October 27, 2019 │ Run Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission)
*Audience Advisory: This production contains mature themes, violence, partial nudity, and use of herbal cigarettes.
Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: soulpepper.ca
©Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019