Theater Review - Laws of Desire

Riding Streetcar with Carolyn Cook and Daniel May

Georgia Shakespeare veteran actors Daniel May and Carolyn Cook have some big wife-beater shirts and faded debutante dresses to fill when they step into the roles of thuggish Stanley Kowalski and deluded Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. During a dinner break from tech rehearsals, four days out from opening night, Cook and May talked about their famous costumes, juggling multiple roles in Georgia Shakespeare’s summer repertory, and staying out of the shadows of Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in Tennessee Williams’ classic Southern tragedy.

Creative Loafing: Are you nervous about playing such famous roles?

Cook: Does “terrified” count? First, the number of actual words that have to come out of my mouth are huge. And Blanche is a character who’s in and out of reality, so figuring out how to finesse that is a challenge. I was thinking earlier, “Why am I having so much trouble working this out?” And our director, Karen Robinson, said, “Blanche is the female Hamlet.” “Oh.”

May: It’s a test of nerves doing it in repertory. I’ve done some of the big Shakespeares, but Streetcar is a huge play and a huge story. And this summer I have to jump from Comedy of Errors to Cherry Orchard to this, so we crave every moment we can get with Tennessee Williams’ characters.

Since Streetcar has fewer characters than a Shakespeare play, does that put more weight on your shoulders?

May: It gives us more to do as actors. I read a quote from Tennessee Williams: “I don’t write stories, I write characters.” Everything in Streetcar is these characters butting heads in small rooms.

Cook: With Blanche, some of [the conflict] isn’t even going on in the rooms. It’s in her head, it’s in her memory, in her fear of the future. And in the costume quick-change booth.

Why there?

Cook: Because I have so many costumes! I have a lot of costume changes. A lot! And they’re gorgeous. Blanche says, “Clothes are my passion,” and she’s dead serious. It’s like clothes are her idea of a way to bring beauty and magic into the world.

Does similar care go into Stanley’s famous tank-top T-shirt?

May: I think the T-shirt’s iconic because of the Brando stage production and the film. It’s not really an image that Williams created for the play.

Cook: They cast someone who looks good in one.

May: Yeah.

Cook: We cast someone who looks good in one, too.

May: But the shirt will be there. We didn’t try something crazy - “Let’s put Stanley in a V-neck!” People associate the wife-beater shirt with the character. And with wife-beating. Which is a shame, because they’re very comfortable. But outside the cultural association, I don’t think the shirt creates anything for the character.

What does?

May: Blanche has a line about how much Stanley loves noise. We started rehearsing on the set yesterday, and it’s wonderful. I can finally slam doors and rattle bottles and throw things around. And the script gives Stanley these great mispronunciations.

Is it hard doing roles associated with such well-known performances? If someone brings up the 1951 movie, do you cover your ears?

Cook: I have reached a point where I don’t care what anyone else has done, and I don’t care if what I’ve done is a carbon copy of them. I didn’t go out and watch the movie, although I did see some production photos. When I go to Blanche, if I stumble across things that great actresses have also done, good. If it’s something completely different that fits with what the director wants, good.

May: I’m glad I did Shake at the Lake’s Macbeth right before I did as iconic a role as Stanley. Doing Macbeth, I thought, “Can I possibly make a choice that’s never been made before?” I figured, maybe not, but at least the choices will be unique to me. What I do is based only on what is written in the play. That’s helped me to avoid thinking, “Whoa, I’m playing Stanley!”

Is it hard saying lines that are so famous?

Cook: I laughed the first couple of times I had to say “the kindness of strangers.” I told Chris Kayser, who plays the doctor, that if he smiles when I say it on stage, I’ll kill him. But it’s famous because it’s a great line, it’s exactly what Blanche needs to say at that point. There’s a part in Scene Three when Blanche tells Mitch, “I need kindness now.” For me, to tie those lines to each other is more important.

I’ve heard about movie sets that foster a tension between the actors comparable to the tension between their characters. Do you ever encounter anything like that?

Cook: That might work for movies, but in plays you’re dependent on each other. In our fights, we have to trust each other. I know that our professional relationship is good, so I can go out and insult and degrade him as Blanche. Plus, this is a repertory situation, so one night we might be at each other’s throats on stage, and the next night be the best of friends. So we have to get along.

May: If I’ve ever experienced that, it’s more about the personalities involved than any artistic method. This play is hard enough without having some kind of animosity off stage. In rehearsal, we’re fighting all day, anyway.