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Ghosts Haunt 'Streetcar'

60 years ago Tennessee Williams' sexually-charged play 'A Streetcar Named Desire' premiered on Broadway.

It was a smash hit on stage, and later on film, thanks in part to Marlon Brando's searing portrayal of the brutish Stanley Kowalski.

The New Repertory Theatre in Watertown is celebrating 'Streetcar's' anniversary with a revival of the play. But, as WBUR's Andrea Shea reports, the classic film is a tough act to follow.

TEXT OF STORY

SCENE FROM FILM: 'Stella, I can't meet him now, not like this. Would you like a cold drink? Oh bless you for that lovely inspiration.'

ANDREA SHEA: 'Streetcar' tells a gut-wrenching tale of two sisters: Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski. They reunite in New Orleans after Blanche, the eldest, loses the family's country estate. Stella lives in a shabby city apartment and is married to Stanley, an animalistic hunk. New Repertory Theatre Director Rick Lombardo says the relationships, layers of meaning and motivation in Tennessee Williams' script are tough to tackle...but adds he...and his cast...are up against an even bigger obstacle.

RICK LOMBARDO: I think it's maybe the curse of this play that it was made into such a wonderful movie.

ANDREA SHEA: A movie with visceral performances by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh.

SCENE FROM FILM: 'You must be Stanley. I'm Blanche. Oh you're Stella's sister. Yes. Oh hiya. Where's the woman? In the bathroom.'

ANDREA SHEA: And so on the first day of rehearsal Lombardo took his actors aside to say...

RICK LOMBARDO: Let's get this out on the table right now. There are 4 ghosts in this room. Over in that corner we have the ghost of Marlon Brando, over in that corner we have the ghost of Vivian Leigh, and in that corner we have the ghost of Tennessee Williams, and in that corner we have the ghost of Elia Kazan.

ANDREA SHEA: Kazan directed the Broadway play as well as the classic 1951 film. But of the four ghosts evoked by Lombardo, one is particularly haunting.

SCENE FROM FILM: Brando screaming 'Hey Stella! Stella!!!'

TODD ALAN JOHNSON: It's in the collective consciousness, that image.

ANDREA SHEA: Actor Todd Alan Johnson plays Stanley in the New Rep's revival of 'Streetcar.' He credits cable TV for helping to make an icon out of Brando screaming in his sweaty, torn undershirt.

TODD ALAN JOHNSON: You can turn on TMC during the commercial break they flash to that moment (laughs) there's photographs of it...it's famous and certainly for any actor attempting it it's infamous.

ANDREA SHEA: Infamous but not impossible, according to Johnson, who says he's not trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead he says he's just doing his best to make his Stanley work for this production. Johnson also says he's not worried about the 'big scene.'

SCENE FROM NEW REP PLAY: Johnson screaming 'Stella!'

TODD ALAN JOHNSON: But hopefully at that point the audience wouldn't be going 'oh here comes that moment' they'll be so caught up in the story and the characters that when it hits them they wont be comparing at that moment. If they want to go home and compare great but if they're comparing during the show we're in trouble.

A TOUCH OF MUSIC FROM THE FILM

ANDREA SHEA: And then there's actress Vivian Leigh's breathtaking performance.

SCENE FROM FILM: 'Whoever you are, I've always depended on the kindness of strangers.'

RACHEL HARKER: At first I was like, oh man, how am I gonna get around that?

ANDREA SHEA: Actress Rachel Harker plays Blanche in the new production and says she thought reading the script over and over and over again might help.

RACHEL HARKER: And doing that kind of actually exorcised her from my mind, Vivian Leigh, because Tennessee Williams' words and the way he writes is so amazing.

ANDREA SHEA: When 'Streetcar' premiered on Broadway actress Jessica Tandy brought William's words to life. Ann Margaret played Blanche on TV. So did Jessica Lange. For Harker, Marge Simpson in the animated musical spoof comes to mind.

SCENE FROM 'THE SIMPSONS': Marge saying, 'I have always depended on the kindness of strangers'...

RACHEL HARKER: Speaking of icons I have to get past the Marge Simpson because I know people will compare me. I refuse to go blue hair but if I did that then I would be the perfect Blanche.

SCENE FROM NEW REP PLAY: Harker doing Blanche — talking about what an animal Stanley is.

ANDREA SHEA: And while comparing performances is inevitable, Director Rick Lombardo says 'Streetcar' the film and 'Streetcar' the play couldn't be more different. He's quick to point out how much longer the drama runs on stage...with much more dialogue, development and nuance. And Lombardo says film director Elia Kazan and writer Tennessee Williams removed references to homosexuality to appease Hollywood's censors.

RICK LOMBARDO: So the film was sanitized and it made Kazan and Tennessee very upset. They actually changed the ending for the film where at the end you have Stella in the film saying she's going to leave Stanley and she's never going to go back inside there again and that's not the ending that Tennessee and Kazan wanted.

ANDREA SHEA: But the ending they wanted is playing out at the New Rep...where Blanche and Stanley are back on stage....and the name 'Stella' carries on.

For WBUR I'm Andrea Shea.

MUSIC FROM THE FILM

The New Repertory Theatre's 60th anniversary production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' runs through October 7th. To see clips from the classic film and pictures from the current revival go to our website: wbur.org

This program aired on September 20, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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