Hearn’s production makes unlikeable character more complex, multifaceted
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, like all pieces of classic literature, covers a variety of topics. It’s about the old replacing the new. It’s about class and the lives of those who belong to either side. It’s about repression and the struggle for personal identity. And it’s a text that will change every time you engage with it. If you studied the play in high school, a second read now will open your eyes to many new aspects.
Moreover, Streetcar is a text that exists now in three different mediums. To just sit down and read the script is entirely different from watching the classic film adaptation with Marlon Brando, which is itself entirely different from watching it performed before your very eyes in a theatre.
The director of the Ottawa production, Sarah Hearns, is more familiar with comedies and mysteries than period piece dramas. Her previous directing credits include Goodbye Piccadilly, Drama at Inish, and the Torch Song Trilogy, for which she won Best Director at the Capital Critics Circle. Hearns said that the Ottawa Little Theatre had been looking at Streetcar over the years, but that it was performed this year because it “really spoke” to her.
“We’ve been reading this periodically over the years, and it never got into the season for one reason or another. I think the first time and second time I read it I thought, ‘I’m not ready to direct it.’ It’s massive and iconic and I don’t have enough under belt my yet,” she said.
Hearns said the difference between a play and a movie is that plays need to make the audience suspend their disbelief. Theatre is limited to a set, so a play has to take into account what the audience can and cannot see.
“It’s about audience engagement. The actors and the audience,” said Hearns. “Together they make the show. You’ve got a real live living person up there on the stage showing you emotions with their whole body.”
The play itself deals with some dark themes, and its characters are complicated and flawed. They are often contradictory and always conflictual. Stanley Kowalski, one of the play’s three main characters, is at once both riveting and unredeemable, as he beats his wife and engages in even grosser acts throughout the play.
In today’s social climate, remarkably different from the late 40s in which the play is set, approaching a character like Kowalski can be difficult, but by playing this out on stage instead of in reality, the audience is able to grapple with a man like Kowalski in a low-stakes environment. As noted by Hearns, he drinks too much, has a temper, and is extremely violent.
Considering these personality traits and his tyrannical treatment of his wife, it’s difficult to present Stanley as character we can empathize with. Yet Hearns pointed out that these personality traits are common symptoms in people with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is the puzzle piece Hearns has realized that helps the audience, if not empathize with, at least understand Stanley better.
It’s mentioned in the play that Stanley was in the military, and that he specifically fought at the bloody battle of Salerno in Italy. Thus, by placing greater emphasis on this possible mental illness, Hearns is able to modernize a play that is ultimately timeless.
The themes of Streetcar are broad and universal, but when it was written we collectively had a more limited understanding of mental illness and its impacts upon all aspects of our lives. Hearn’s production is hoping to meet this head-on—not to glorify Kowalski and others like him, but to reveal another complex in an already complex play.
A Streetcar Named Desire is running at Ottawa Little Theatre (400 King Edward Ave) from March 21 to April 7. Information and tickets can be found on their website.