Relying on the kindness of strangers | ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at Orcas Center

The first Orcas Center production of 2019 is all thanks to Kelly Toombs.

When director Robert Hall heard that Toombs, whom he has worked with on a handful of local productions, was passionate about starring in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he quickly agreed to produce it.

“It’s still a really important part of the literary canon and relevant today because of the Me Too movement and family dynamics. Tennessee Williams wrote the play for social change,” said Hall, who is also the production manager for Orcas Center.

The play is centered around troubled schoolteacher Blanche DuBois, played by Katie Wlaysewski, who loses her home in Mississippi and is forced to move in with her sister Stella Kowalski, portrayed by Katie Zwilling. Blanche is disturbed by Stella’s low-class life in New Orleans and her crude and unpredictable husband Stanley, played by Toombs. Blanche and Stanley develop a dysfunctional connection that builds in intensity as the play progresses. The cast is rounded out by Don Yerly, Andrea Cohen, Lew Thomas, Michael Armenia, Matthew Laslo, Val Hellar and Gillian Smith.

The production runs on the Orcas Center main stage from Jan. 24-26 and Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. There is a 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 27. Tickets are $20 with a special opening night price of $15 at www.orcascenter.org. Parental guidance is strongly suggested as the play has brief nudity, mature themes and violence.

“I always want a role that is better than the last one,” Toombs said. “I like the way Tennessee Williams captures the human element. It’s raw and unfiltered and realistic as any stage play can capture.”

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is widely considered to be one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, and Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The production opened on Broadway in 1947 and ran for two years. It was adapted into a 1951 film starring Marlon Brando, Vivian Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, all of whom previously performed the work in theater productions. The film won four Academy Awards.

Hall’s adaptation features interactive projection and a thrust stage set design by Dane Steck that allows the audience to sit on three sides like theater in the round.

“This is the first time the main stage has been used like this,” he said. “How it’s being produced is completely different.”

Rehearsals began at the end of September, and Hall chose to explore the dynamic between the actors for the first few months.

“The way I am directing it, it really relies on the actors and the relationships between them,” he said. “Despite all the movies out there, this material comes right from these people on the island. It comes from them organically, viscerally and authentically. That’s what I tried to focus on; … the role of Blanche is not only coveted by most actresses in the world but the more I’ve gotten into it with Katie Wlaysewski, it’s deep, multifaceted and nuanced.”

Wlaysewski says taking on the part has been one of the most challenging tasks she’s undertaken in her life.

“Finding the time with two kids and multiple jobs to not only memorize an insane amount of lines, but to attempt to really capture the many different emotions of Blanche has been no easy task. She is a very complex woman, and I’m still working on getting there,” she said.

Hall says Zwilling and Toombs are each perfect for their roles.

“They are absolutely right on together,” he said. “All they have to do is play and have fun. Stella has to work between the two characters of Blanche and Stanley.”

Zwilling said working with Hall is like “taking a master class in acting.”

“I have done community theater my whole life, and I’ve never had an experience like this,” she said. “Similar to any role, I try to find inside of myself the emotional pieces that are true to that character, so I am not pretending to be someone else. … Stella comes from a rich and fancy plantation compound and she leaves that world and finds the sexy night life of New Orleans. She loves the life that is completely opposite of where she was raised. But then Blanche comes into the picture and she is caught between the two worlds again. The two people she loves most in the world are at odds with each other.”