A Streetcar Named Desire returns to New Haven

Yale Rep opens season with the Tennessee Williams classic

René Augesen as Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Joan Marcus.

René Augesen as Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Amanda May

Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire will open the Yale Repertory Theatre’s season on September 20 at the University Theatre, 222 York St., in New Haven. The play had its world premiere a few blocks over at the Shubert Theater (in 1947, starring Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando) and hasn’t been staged by a professional company here since 1971. This will be the first production of the play put on by the Yale Repertory Theatre.

If you have managed to miss all of the revivals, movies, and even operas that have been based on the play over the past 60 years, here is a nice synopsis offered by the Yale Rep: “The play takes place in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, where an electrifying battle of wills ignites between southern belle Blanche DuBois and her working class brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Nerves fraying and beauty fading, Blanche is both repelled and intrigued by Stanley’s primal brutishness—even as he threatens to reveal her darkest secrets and destroy her illusions.”

The play will star René Augesen as Blanche DuBois and Joe Manganiello as Stanley Kowalski. Mark Rucker will direct.

According to Steven Padla of the Yale Rep, “it’s a nice homecoming for the play, back to the city where it was born; and for these two longtime artistic collaborators (Rucker and Augesen), who have worked together numerous times. They are two School of Drama graduates returning to Yale, where they got their starts in the profession, to do this play in particular.”

The Arts Paper reached Rucker and Augesen in San Francisco to talk about the production. Here are those conversations.

Mark Rucker. Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theatre.

Mark Rucker. Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy of American Conservatory Theatre.

Mark Rucker

Tell me about your time at Yale.
I had a wonderful three years at Yale and it’s actually where I first discovered Tennessee Williams, in my first year.

Favorite memories/hangouts in New Haven?
I was shocked to see that Sullivan’s, the hangout of the Drama School, has closed. I’ve been going there since 1989.

Have you been back in New Haven much since?
I’ve been going back to Yale since I graduated in 1992. It’s kind of a second home to me, New Haven. I usually do a show there every couple of years, if I’m lucky.

The Yale Repertory Theatre told me you have wanted to direct A Streetcar Named Desire for some time.
Yes, I can’t believe I’m finally doing it. At American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where I am the associate artistic director, we were slated to do it, but couldn’t get the rights. We ultimately had to change the show. Then (Yale Repertory Theatre Artistic Director) James Bundy, he and I have a great relationship, called me up and offered for me to do it at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Have you spent time in New Orleans?
My mother is from Mississippi and spent part of her childhood in New Orleans, so last fall, she asked if I would take her on a trip. It was a revelation. We saw the French Quarter and a lot of New Orleans. I went out on my own, and walked around, heard the music. At the time I thought I was doing Streetcar here (in San Francisco), and so I was already thinking about it. (Tennessee Williams) describes hearing music in four different locations around you, I’d never experienced it before, but it’s definitely true.

Why choose René for your leading lady? I heard she was your first and only pick to play Blanche.
René is one of my very favorite actresses in the world. She’s brilliant, she’s southern, and seems like a good fit. She’s younger than some Blanches you see in the theater, and I think that’s great. Frankly, I’d do anything with her.

Have you met Joe Manganiello before? How did your casting process work?
I went down to L.A., where I’m from, and hung out with him. We had a meeting and talked a lot. It’s his favorite play in the world, he said some really remarkable things. I knew it would be a great fit. I have a friend who is on the TV show (True Blood) with him. We talked about the play a lot and theater in general. He really values being trained in the theater, doesn’t want to stay away from the theater for too long … which is amazing because it’s hard work, and not very lucrative. But he loves it so much he wants to do it.

Joe Manganiello. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

Joe Manganiello. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

Do you see a difference directing actors who are primarily stage actors as opposed to TV actors?
In the past I’ve had experiences with actors who haven’t been on stage in a while. It’s harder for them to get going. If they don’t keep their toes in the theater world, it’s hard to get back. It’s like an athlete, you have to keep the thread going or it’s harder and harder to get back. I see more and more TV actors these days. It used to be harder once you got into TV/film to get back to other media, but it’s much more fluid now.

In reading into the history of the play, which I’m sure you know premiered here in New Haven at the Shubert, it’s said that this play and Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Stanley had a hand in the shift from melodramatic drama to dramatic naturalism in the theater world … How will you direct it here in New Haven?
The play is this fascinating mixture of a kind of realism, naturalistic acting that was popular in the mid-20th century, and this incredibly illusionistic, lush writing that Williams did. So it’s realism, and not realism at the same time. The play is this amazing set of circumstance and (an) incredible battle between these two characters, and at the same time there’s Stella, Blanche’s sister, and Mitch, Blanche’s last chance at happiness. All combine to create this incredible circumstance. It’s a clash between an animalistic man and a southern woman. But the more I look at it it’s a threesome (with Stella), then a foursome (with Mitch). An incredible force of things that come together.

Blanche’s personality was written as rather melodramatic, some even say with mental health issues. Any trepidation about mental health portrayals?
I’m not thinking about it as somebody who is going down a path to insanity. I’m trying to think about it in a different way. I’m not thinking about it as mental illness, I’m just thinking about it as a person who has gone through these circumstances, someone who has lost her home, family, and is trying to keep it together as a schoolteacher and has been sent away. She is somebody who has done everything wrong in a situation. She’s desperate, drinking a lot, making lots of bad choices, and she is up against this man who exposes her completely. There is an incredible duality. I can’t wait to get in a rehearsal room.

Will your interpretation focus the audiences’ sympathy with Blanche or with Stanley?
That’s an interesting question. I believe that it’s this incredible battle and I find working on it that I see the parts where Blanche eclipses Stanley, and where Stanley eclipses Blanche. I don’t know if I want to focus on who you sympathize with. It’s easy to think of Blanche as a sympathetic character, but she has incredible coping techniques. I find sympathy with Stanley who is in this situation with a sophisticated character. She makes him feel lesser, which nobody likes. He is more affected by the upper class. She pulls her sister back to her southern aristocracy, which he is obviously attracted to, but he must keep Stella under control. I want to find all the colors and bring them out and see what happens.

Sounds like you’re coming to it with fresh eyes.
I hope so. I want to come to it with fresh eyes, but don’t want to manipulate it. People have told me not to do too much, overdo the set, or create a “whole new Stanley.” The advice I’ve given in the readings is to please honor the play and the characters, look at it with your point of view and in 2013, but don’t do too much. It’s a balancing act for me—(to) make it fresh but also honor what it is, because it’s a beautiful, beautiful play.

René Augesen. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

René Augesen. Image courtesy of Yale Rep.

René Augesen
Tell me about your time at Yale.
I loved it, I really did. I loved every minute of it. It’s the first time I thought, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. The first time I understood phrases that had been thrown at me in acting classes, but didn’t get. It was rigorous and time consuming, but I loved every minute of it.

Have you been back in New Haven much since?
Though I have worked with James Bundy, I have only been back to Yale Rep once, for A Woman of No Importance, in 2008.

What’s your first memory of reading or seeing this play?
I read it in high school, but I don’t remember. I guess it wasn’t until I got to grad school, around that time -when everybody was reading every play they possibly could- that I remember it. I like when I pick up a script and it seems impossible and it seems so scary. It was one of a handful of scripts that taking on that task seemed really scary and frightening. The breadth of it is awesome. I’ve not seen the film in a long time, and if I’m doing something I don’t— but I admit to “YouTubing” the Marlon Brando “Stella moment.”

Have you spent time in New Orleans?
I grew up in Texas, and after undergrad I sort of wandered around for a while, I lived (in) a few places. One was in a little town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. The French Quarter, it’s like a totally different world. It’s like the air changes and the electricity, it’s like you’re somewhere else.

So they were formative years?
I suppose it was, although I wasn’t doing any acting. I was wandering around. I expect to draw from the memories for my character. The five senses of every character are informed by your imagination and I just happen to have first-hand knowledge of New Orleans.

Have you worked with Mark Rucker before? You were his first and only pick for Blanche.
We have worked together a number of times and I love working with him and am very grateful that that’s the case— that he has that faith in me and I have faith in him. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Have you met or worked with Joe?
No, I have never met him, never worked with him. It’s almost always the case, for every show you do. For two months you’re forced into a marriage with people. I’m always very nervous on the first day.

Are you thinking of Blanche as a person with mental health issues, or just a person that is dealing with extenuating circumstances?
For right now, I’m keeping myself from articulating any specific definition. I don’t like to have any judgments before I get into the room. Certainly, she’s a person who has had a lot happen to her and exists in a world which is anxious for her most of the time, but I usually like to find out how that manifests itself in rehearsal. There is always a sort of this alchemy of people. It wouldn’t be the same if it was different people. There is magic that happens in the room.

Do you see Blanche as a character that you can sympathize with?
Oh, absolutely.

Can you sympathize with the character Stanley?
I think I can with all of them. All of them are a product of their history, and every character, every person really, is flawed in big ways and small. Every character, unless it’s a caricature, is sympathetic. You just have to find your way in.

With so many revivals, how do you approach the play with fresh eyes?
There is a lot of baggage for Blanche and for Stanley, and even for Stella. It’s a movie that everyone might not have seen, but everybody knows certain lines or scenes from the movie and I can’t let myself be informed by past even iconic performances because it puts a pressure that’s not fair up in your head. I just hope I find a really interesting, compelling way to make people interested in her again. Certainly the writing is compelling in and of itself. I just have to hope I can rise to that. I’m very excited.

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