A little more than 50 years ago, Tennessee Williams wrote one of the all-time classics of American theater: "A Streetcar Named Desire," a steamy drama set in a tenement in a rundown section of New Orleans' legendary French Quarter. It's an area on the wrong side of the streetcar tracks.
Two of the theater world's most famous misfits - emotionally fragile Blanche DuBois and virile, animalistic Stanley Kowalski, her lusty brother-in-law - are thrown together when Blanche comes to visit her sister, Stella, after losing the family home in Mississippi.
The sparks will fly Feb. 11-28 when Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Charles Morey directs a rare local production of "Streetcar" on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre.
Williams, in his stage directions for "A Streetcar Named Desire," which premiered to critical acclaim in 1947, describes Blanche as a woman whose "delicate beauty must avoid strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth."
Like a moth to a flame, Blanche sashays into the working class world of Stanley and Stella aboard a streetcar - the one with Desire as its designated destination.
Stanley, who thrives on sexual conquest - despite the fact that Stella is pregnant with their first child - is drawn to Blanche.
For local Equity actress Joyce Cohen, who is playing Blanche, the "Streetcar" rehearsal has been pretty intense.
"I'm totally obsessed, but it's wonderful. I mean, how often do you get an experience like this? It's all-consuming," she said.
"I've been told so many times, even when I was a lot younger, that I should do this role, that when people would ask, `What's the one role you've always wanted to play, I would automatically say `Streetcar' but without having really thought through the doing of it.
"Then, when I thought that Chuck (director Charles Morey) was considering letting me do the role, I had to sit down and read it several times and just think about it. The role is immense on many levels.
"Then I thought, after all those years, `Oh, my gosh, it's come to get me!' But as intense and overwhelming and all those things that the role is, I know I will remember this for the rest of my life," she said.
While Cohen has never played the role of Blanche before in a full-scale production, she worked on scenes from the play during acting classes over the years.
"In fact, the script I'm working from has one scene that's been underlined that I used when I was living out in Los Angeles. I was struggling terribly with it then. I hope I'm in better shape to do it now than I was then."
Cohen noted that the rest of the cast "is really wonderful."
She and Craig Bockhorn (Mitch) worked together in PTC's production of "O, Pioneers."
"I guess you would say there are `tiny' roles, but they all help create that hot, steamy, sensual New Orleans atmosphere," Cohen said.
"Williams' language is so beautiful. He is a poet, but you still think you're hearing a real person talk. When you miss a word, which you do because you're human, you feel a little tripped up because his rhythm is so wonderful. You just want to have every word done perfectly."
Cohen feels that Williams wasn't dealing with social issues when he wrote "Streetcar."
"I was reading something recently about Williams' talking about the play, and he said he was trying to focus on how people misunderstand each other. They never just take the time to truly listen. The play wouldn't have come to such a tragic ending if, at several points along the way, Blanche could have told the truth. Then, when she finally does tell the truth, Mitch is so abhorrent that he can't really hear why (she) turned to the life that (she) turned to.
"I think that, in the '90s - or maybe even as long as we're human beings alive here on Earth - there'll be that pull toward the brutal side and the pull toward the artistic and sensitive and soulful side and, hopefully, we can find some balance in our lives. Clearly Blanche is out of balance and Stanley is out of balance."
Morey said he directed one production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" 18 years ago in New Hampshire.
"But I always wanted to have another crack at it. Williams really broke new ground and reintroduced a certain amount of poetic lyricism that hadn't been seen in American theater for some time," he said.
Morey feels that PTC's new production of "Streetcar" has come along at the perfect time in Joyce Cohen's career. (Cohen was most recently seen in PTC's production of "Dancing at Lughnasa," and last year in "Arcadia.")
"For a woman, the role of Blanche is not unlike Hamlet for a man. It's one of the great roles that many of our great actresses have done. It's like scaling Mount Everest," he said.
"I am continually struck by how this play has entered the consciousness of our age," Morey says. "The characters of Stanley and Blanche have become cultural icons. Stanley's desperate cry of `Stella, Stella,' or Blanche's pitiful `I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,' fall from our lips at the mention of `A Streetcar Named Desire' as easily as we quote Hamlet or Romeo when discussing Shakespeare."
Cohen's other previous credits include "Twelfth Night" at PTC, "Sylvia" and "The Heidi Chronicles" at Salt Lake Acting Company and work on the locally filmed television series, "Touched by an Angel."
Mark Elliot Wilson of New York is making his PTC debut in the role of Stanley. His credits include "The Taming of the Shrew," "Unidentified Human Remains" and Al Pacino's "Salome."
Amy Tribbey, who plays Stella, is also making her PTC debut. She received critical acclaim for her portrayal of Carol in the American Conservatory Theatre production of "Oleanna."
Other guest artists in "Streetcar" include Craig Bockhorn (who appeared in PTC's productions of "A Tale of Two Cities" and "O, Pioneers!"), Saidah Arrika Ekulona and Bryan Hicks (previously seen at PTC in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Salt Lake actors in the cast include Jayne Luke, Robert Peterson and David Valenza, all mem-bers of Actors Equity, and Celesta Davis, Joe Debevc, Rebecca Lynn Hunt, Christopher Lazzaro and Jay Perry.
Guest designers for the production include James Wolk, New York-based scenery designer, and Mary Louise Geiger, who designed the lighting for the national touring company of "The Sound of Music."
PTC's resident designers include Carol Wells-Day, costumes; Cynthia L. McCourt, hair/makeup; James C. Swonger, sound, and James Prigmore, composer of incidental music.
- PERFORMANCES on the Lees Main Stage of Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1340 East, on the University of Utah campus, will be at 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and both 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Feb. 11-28. Single tickets range from $14 to $32. All seats are reserved. There are discounts for groups of 20 or more and a variety of special discounts for U. of U. students, including $4 on the first Thursday of the run, half-price tickets on Mondays-Thursdays and the Saturday matinees and a $4 "student rush" ticket 30 minutes prior to curtain for any performance for any remaining seats.
For reservations or further information, call the box office at 581-6961.