Chicago is gearing up for Steppenwolf's 50th anniversary production of Tennessee Williams' classic, A Streetcar Named Desire. The drama, opening May 4, will be directed by Steppenwolf co-founder Terry Kinney and star film and theatre actor Gary Sinese as Williams' avatar of brute force, Stanley Kowalski. The lost, faded flower Blanche will be played by Laila Robins.
Sinise, who is one of the theatre's founders and a member of the theatre's three-member executive artistic board, was nominated for a 1995 Best Supporting Actor Oscar in Forrest Gump, and for a Best Director of a Play Tony Award as director of Buried Child. Streetcar will mark his first acting assignment at the Steppenwolf since 1988 when he starred as Tom Joad in the adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath that won a Tony Award as Best Play when the production transferred to Broadway.
Kathryn Erbe, seen on Broadway in The Speed Of Darkness, The Grapes Of Wrath and My Thing Of Love (the latter two were transfers from Steppenwolf) will play Stanley's wife, Stella. Laila Robins, recently seen Off-Broadway and around the country in Mrs. Klein, will star as faded flower Blanche DuBois.
Williams' masterpiece follows the emotional maelstrom that ensues when Blanche coems to live with Stanley and Stella in their New Orleans tenement. "I'm hoping to bring our audience a version of this American classic that is both faithful and new," said director Kinney. "We hope to find fresh truths in Reached by phone in Chicago April 8, Robins told Playbill On-Line that her own take on Blanche Dubois won't be particularly influenced by the work of previous actresses in the role. "I think I saw the Vivian Leigh performance, at least ten years ago. I saw Ann Margret do it. Jessica Lange as well. Still, I have brain like sieve and don't remember specific real choices. I don't want to be influenced that much; I guess there's a general idea of Blanche building in my subconscious, but I haven't gotten to that point. Right now I'm still learning the lines and running into the furniture."
Of the Steppenwolf production, Robins noted that director Kinney is using the published version of Williams' text, rather than the Samuel French acting version, which incorporated changes made by Elia Kazan to suit his actors. "The differences are minor -- like action sequences where people have outbursts to help move the action along -- but we're looking at some of the Kazan ideas and putting them back in." How did Robins get the plum part? "For the audition, Terry [Kinney] said pick a scene and come in -- I couldn't pick one. They're all incredible. It's just a jewel, a perfect play. I ended up doing the second Mitch scene, when he confronts Blanche. It's almost like Shakespeare in a way; if you meet the language, it'll take you for an emotional ride. As I was saying the words, they just took over. I had an emotional response in that moment that I hadn't thought out and planned. The language is so rich; it's a perfect play."
"Terry [Kinney] is not coming in with a whole new conceptual thing, yet being a Steppenwolf director, he doesn't want to do what's been done before. Plus there's Steppenwolf's reputation for a certain style of theatre..." Asked if that meant Stanley would be throwing chairs around, Robins said, "Well, we've been joking that when Stella goes to the hospital, her water will break onstage!" Robins does admit the Steppenwolf boomers have grown up a bit. "Back when they started, they were doing stage combat and didn't even hire someone to do it properly. Terry said when he was doing Orphans, both his elbows were humungous and bruised. As they get older, it's like, `yes, I will wear that kneepad.'
"Still, I told Terry, `I'm intimidated by you guys; it's so intense.' He said, `Nah, we're intense onstage, then we go drink coffee and watch TV.' I mean, Katie Erbe is married to Kinney and they have a one-and-a-half year old baby. They're all becoming family people."
Streetcar isn't Robins' first brush with playwright Williams. She did two productions of Summer And Smoke, at Williamstown (with Christopher Reeve) and CT's Yale Rep, with Alma Winemiller her favorite role to date.
"It's been a very intense two years," said Robins. "I did nine months in Mrs. Klein in New York, then four months on the road. Then I did a movie directed by Philip Haas who did Angels & Insects. We shot The Blood Oranges in Mexico for six weeks. It's been a whirlwind, and I didn't know if I wanted to keep going like this, but I know the other end of that stick and I'm happy to be working."
Robins will be working hard, indeed: the weekend schedule of Streetcar includes a 5 and 9 PM staging of the three-plus hour play, and two more shows on Sunday. "It's a killer weekend," said Robins. "Terry says it's insane -- you can't even have dinner -- and is trying to have it changed." At the moment, the production is planned only for Steppenwolf, but the principals are not averse to outside interest possibly bringing the staging to New York. "For the moment, though," said Robins, "we're just happy to give this to the Chicago audience."
Kinney, who starred as Tilden in the recent Broadway revival of Buried Child, has directed Of Mice And Men and A Clockwork Orange at Steppenwolf.
Sinese is now best known for his role in filmdom's Forrest Gump, but he also played Tom Joad in the aforementioned 1988 Grapes Of Wrath. Robins starred opposite Jeremy Irons in Broadway's The Real Thing.
Steppenwolf veteran (Slaughterhouse Five Rick Snyder will play Steve; John C. Reilly is Mitch. Also featured are Amy Morton, John C. Seda, Audrey Morgan, Mike Sassone, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Krishna Le Fan and Sandra Marquez.
Designers for Streetcar include Robert Brill (set), Kevin Rigdon (lighting), Laura Cunningham (costumes), and Rob Milburn (sound). Michele Volansky will serve as dramaturg.
Special events coinciding with the production include a free, post-show lecture by Northwestern University professor emeritus Dr. Leland Roloff (June 11) and an appearance by Gary Sinese at a fundraising breakfast sponsored by his fan club, Gary's Web International. Proceeds of the May 17 event, which costs $50 and features Sinese speaking, signing autographs and posing for photos, will benefit Steppenwolf.
For what's playing now, tickets ($24.50-$27.50 previews; $31.50-$36.50 regular) and information on A Streetcar Named Desire, on the Steppenwolf Theatre Mainstage April 23-June 15, call (312) 335 1650 or refer to the regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By David Lefkowitz