When director William C. McGregor visited New Orleans in preparation for the Nashua Theatre Guild’s September performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, he found the more things change the more they stay the same.
Tennessee Williams’ 1947 Pulitzer prize-winning play deals with a clash between the Old South and the rise of the industrial class in post-World War II New Orleans. Iconic characters Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle, and Stanley Kowalski (originally played by Marlon Brando), a force of nature, have made this play endure over the years.
McGregor, who was raised in both Florida and Georgia, found that the play’s themes are still relevant today. Upon learning the Nashua Theater Guild would perform the play Sept. 9 through Sept. 12, McGregor booked a month-long trip to New Orleans to see how the city has changed since the 1940s. He found a city that had been ravaged by natural disasters and economic problems. He found a city where big national companies were swooping in and replacing family-owned businesses that had been active for 50 or 60 years. He found a city in the midst of a culture clash, where some were trying to move forward past the recent years of misfortune while others were desperately clinging to its historical feeling. Sixty years later and New Orleans was still struggling with its identity just as it had beneath Tennessee Williams’ pen.
One aspect of society that has changed is its tolerance for shock value. When the play was originally performed, the material on the page was shocking enough, according to Meredith Borgioli, president of the Nashua Theatre Guild. After so many years, people are now very familiar with the play. That is why this performance will look at the material in a darker way. Even the set will help put the audience on edge and convey a more twisted feeling.
“It is our most technically proficient show,” Borgioli said.
Most significantly, the play focuses on the psychological issues of the characters.
“We’re trying to avoid softening the play,” McGregor said. “Over the years it has become a bit light. We’re taking a harder edge.”
McGregor said Blanche, for example, has some psychological disturbances that are not just stress-related but represent actual psychosis. He said audience members’ understanding of mental illness is for more sophisticated than it was in the ’40s.
“Meredith and I talked about how the modern audience has a much better understanding of psychosis because it is so much more well known,” McGregor said. “We knew we couldn’t hide that aspect of the play and had to address it.”
To properly portray these issues, McGregor needed strong actors. He said since the roles in A Streetcar Named Desire are so desirable, actors came from all over New Hampshire and Massachusetts to audition.
“We got very lucky and have an amazing cast,” McGregor said.
McGregor’s own life experiences in the South will help the actors capture the setting of the play.
“You see a lot of plays set in the South,” McGregor said. “They may have the right setting or the right accents but you need to have the feel as well. You need to use the language in the right way.”
This was another reason for McGregor’s trip to New Orleans. He wanted to refresh his memories of Southern communication.
“At the dinner table growing up, I could say whatever I wanted about someone else as long as I said it in a pleasant way,” McGregor said. “In the South you know you’re in trouble because when someone is really scolding you, it sounds like the sweetest thing you’ve ever heard.”