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INTERVIEW | Director Weyni Mengesha & Actor Amy Rutherford Talk About Soulpepper’s A Streetcar Named Desire

By Paula Citron on June 19, 2024

L: Director Weyni Mengesha (Poto: Mikka Gia); R: Amy Rutherford in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
L: Director Weyni Mengesha (Poto: Mikka Gia); R: Amy Rutherford in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

In 2019, Weyni Mengesha was the newly appointed artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre. Her first big production was a radical rethink of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire. It turned out to be a sold-out run and a critical favourite.

Mengesha is now bringing the production back, and I sat down with the director over Zoom to talk about the whys and wherefores of the remount. A Streetcar Named Desire is currently running at Soulpepper’s Young Centre in the Distillery District until July 7.

I also had a Zoom talk with Amy Rutherford who plays Blanche DuBois, one of the most coveted roles in English-language theatre. The actor won the 2020 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for her riveting performance, as well as being nominated for a Dora.

Rutherford talks about the creative process, new insights into the play, and Tennessee Williams himself.

The Play

For those who don’t know the play, here’s a brief summary.

The fragile Blanche DuBois comes to her sister Stella’s home in New Orleans after losing the family plantation in Mississippi. There she immediately finds conflict with Stella’s alpha male husband, Stanley Kowalski, and so the seeds are set for a tragedy to unfold.

Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Weyni Mengesha, Director

Why are you bringing Streetcar back?

The set was actually built for touring because the production was going to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and we were also in discussions with other theatres across the country when the pandemic hit. Because we have the set, we could easily bring the production back.

As well, it was a totally sold-out run in 2019, and we couldn’t extend it, so a lot of people didn’t get to see the show. This time we do have a healthy period to extend the run.

Besides, I continue to love this play.

What about touring? Is that off the table?

Because many theatres have new leadership, we’re back in conversations, and they’ve been invited to opening night. In fact, one of my goals for Soulpepper is to expand touring.

Were you able to get the original cast back?

There are three new people. Shakura Dickson is Stella, Divine Brown is Willie Mae, and Ordena Stephens-Thompson is Eunice Hubbell.

It certainly was an eye-catching set with those large walls that you could see through at times.

Designer Lorenzo Savoini created a steel cage of walls covered with material. It reflects what the environment feels like to Blanche. In our version, she is the first person we see. New Orleans comes crashing in on her as all the furniture is placed on the empty stage. We also have the live band behind a panel in the wall. Blanche hears the jazz music and it’s disorienting.

The set also represents the iconic ghosts that occupy her mind. It’s nuanced because it doesn’t stand for any specific real estate. You have to build imagination.

What was your initial directorial approach to Streetcar?

New Orleans is like Toronto, meaning there are a lot of different people living there, which creates tensions between class and race. I took my cue from Tennessee Williams who believed that everyone has a desperate need for survival, and that there are many hurt people caught up in the cyclical nature of trauma.

How did this manifest itself in staging the play? Many people thought your vision was radical.

I populated it differently. Blanche’s sister Stella became half Black, so what was it like for Stella being a mixed-race person in Mississippi? In New Orleans, she straddles both sides, which gives her a different perspective. I also made the neighbours, John and Eunice Hubbell, Black. Many Blacks moved to the city to find a better life and these new faces contributed to the melting pot. You also have to remember that Stanley came from a Polish immigrant family that had to struggle.

In the original play, Williams has Black musicians on the “edges”. I have them visible from time to time. Williams also has a character called Negro Woman. I gave her a name, Willie Mae, and a character.

In this diverse community, Stanley’s friends are a mix — Black, Latinx, White. They are moving beyond barriers. The diversity on stage represents the melting pot, and the various tensions it produces.

Have you changed your directorial focus with the remount?

There is a greater emphasis, a deepening so to speak, on the themes of death and mental health.

Can you describe the death theme?

Death pervades the text. I think Tennessee Williams was obsessed by death.

In the 2019 production, we spent a lot of time discussing desire, and its rawness and vulnerability. This time we focused on death more than on desire. Blanche talks about death and decay on the plantation, and all the relatives who are buried there. When she sees the flower seller, it triggers memories of fear and death. She did, after all, see her own husband die. She also equates the loss of the plantation with the end of her own life.

Death and desire become equated.

How does mental health become a factor?

During the pandemic, I really reflected on the play, and I began to better appreciate mental health issues, and that we had to go deeper with that theme. Amy’s approach is that Blanche is suffering from PTSD.

For example, we all talk about drug abuse, but we rarely have conversations about what is inside us, what is causing it, the importance of our impulses and their outcomes. This became another focus — Blanche following her impulses.

There’s also her nymphomaniac tendencies concerning the soldiers at the nearby camp, and the army making her plantation out of bounds. And her fascination with young boys. Why does Blanche do these things?

How do you approach a script you’re about to direct?

I revere both classic plays and new playwrights. They both present an open box for interpretation. If it’s a classic play, I do a lot more research. With contemporary plays, you look at the politics of the time. For both, I post images in the rehearsal room that give background to the plays. If the playwright is alive, they are available to discuss changes.

Do you think that five years has affected how the cast views the play?

The context has certainly changed because the world is a different place. For example, Mac Fyfe who plays Stanley has had two kids. That has to affect the way Stanley thinks about the coming baby.

What is the fascination of the play for you?

The text. I could unpack it forever.

Amy Rutherford in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Amy Rutherford in Soulpepper Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Names Desire (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Amy Rutherford, (Blanche DuBois)

What was your reaction when you found out the play was going to be remounted?

A little trepidation — it’s such a gruelling part to play. When Cate Blanchett performed Blanche, she couldn’t extend the run because her hair was falling out. On the other hand, you can’t refuse to play one of the greatest roles written for women. I also love working with Weyni, because it is such a creative partnership. It’s also a beautiful production. There are not many remounts, so this is a very special play.

What do feel about the production in general?

Weyni approached the play with rigour. She wanted to capture the intoxicating atmosphere of New Orleans. Therefore, the lighting, the set and the music were at the forefront along with the characters. She has produced a detailed and honest production.

In 2019, it was just after the Me Too movement, and Black Lives Matter was just beginning, so race was a palpable topic. It became an entry point into the play because Stella is bi-racial.
What was the creative process like the second time around?

In 2019, we had to rehearse around scheduling obstacles. This time we had the leisure to delve more deeply into the text, and Williams’ script is bottomless. Streetcar is an extremely well-written play and it illuminates the power of art in expressing the human condition.

In the first production, we all shared the same reference point. This time was different. Weyni asked us to come to the first rehearsal with ideas about the characters, for example, who they really were.

Upon closer inspection, we also started to see how similar some characters are. For example, just how different are Stella and Blanche? They are cut from the same cloth. Underneath the pressure, maybe they are just two sisters trying to be their human selves.

And then there’s Stanley and Blanche. They both suffered traumas. Stanley went through the war and Blanche faced death on the plantation. Blanche’s imagination, however, won’t let her see who Stanley really is, yet maybe something happened to him during the war. The play is not about differences, but similarities, yet the characters can’t see this in each other. It is a play that explores grief and shame, and the hurts that people endure.

You might think that you know the play, but with the deepening process of mining the script, you’d be surprised to see something different. There is always room for interpretation.

What are some of the demands of playing Blanche?

Tennessee Williams himself said that the character of Blanche cuts to the bone. The text itself forces you to be always in the present. It is a very emotional journey that goes from flirtation to absolute horror and grief. As well, you have to grapple with the fact that two things can exist at the same time. Blanche is vain and sensitive. She is manipulative and loving.

My heart breaks for her, but I also have a lot of respect for her, because she was of her time when you had to obey the social rules. She was forced to use her feminine wiles to get her way.

How would you describe Blanche DuBois?

She’s funny, intelligent, tender, resilient, quick-witted and compassionate. She has a lot going for her. In fact, Blanche is the smartest person in the room. She is, however, also vain, superficial and shallow.

She lies and tells fibs because sometimes reality is not worth upholding. She wants to make things prettier than they are. It is her way of coping.

Weyni said that you thought that Blanche suffered from PTSD.

Mental health is a big issue in the play and when you view Blanche through the lens of PTSD, her character is better understood. The others see her as nuts, but they don’t know her background or what is causing her to unravel. She’s sent to a mental institution because there is no other support available to her. After digging deeper into the script, I feel I see her more clearly now.

Did Blanche’s relationship with Stanley change at all?

Mac Fyfe and I are having fun recognizing our similarities. Our relationship is like a poker game where we bluff, and speak in codes. The object is to gain status, and humiliate each other. It’s fun to play and fun for the audience to watch.

And then there is the issue of rape.

It was gutsy for Williams to put rape on stage in 1947. He had great insight because he recognized that rape is not desire, but a compulsive act of violence. It’s meant to demean, or degrade, or control. A compressed pressure cooker of horror makes us do such things, like when Stanley hits Stella. He was in the army. Maybe the violence stems from his own personal memories. Yet in the fallout after the rape, Stanley can’t believe what he has done.

What do you think Tennessee Williams’ intentions were in writing Streetcar?

He was writing from his own special place, about his own experiences and people he knew. We discovered that he had lost someone close to him, and that this death was his connection to loss and grief.

He was also writing out of his own sense of shame. He wanted to convey how frightening the world is for sensitive people. Because he was damaged himself, he was compassionate about the flaws of other people. He also shows how our imagination can save us in dark moments, or in states of denial. I believe that his entry point to the play was showing the grief and trauma of the human experience.

As a man, Williams was sensitive and charismatic. He was a genius whose work is so revealing. I felt him in the rehearsal room and feel him in the theatre.

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Paula Citron
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