Tamiko Robinson Steele as Stella Kowalski with Eric D. Pasto-Crosby as Stanley Kowalski. Photo courtesy of Nashville Repertory Theater

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Characters of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” were brought to life with impactful chemistry and superb acting during the Nashville Repertory Theater’s production at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. 

Directed by Nat McIntyre, the play embodied the spirit of early twentieth century life in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the set so realistically furnished it beckoned you to take your seat on a bench outside the home of Stanley and Stella Kowalski at 632 Elysian Fields.

From the first scene, audiences saw a production that looked different–and more honest–than what has been presented in film adaptations of the classic story.

The play’s roles have historically been given to white actors, but that shouldn’t be a hard rule– talent isn’t restricted by race. And so Tamiko Robinson Steele, an acclaimed actress, native Nashvillian and alumnus of Tennessee State University, was tapped for the iconic role of Stella while James Rudolph, another accomplished African American Music City native, played upstairs neighbor Steve.

To Steele, this “color-conscious” casting accurately reflected the ethnic makeup of French Quarter residents. Though intentional, her casting wasn’t about making a statement– she earned her chance to play Stella.

“I don’t want people to pretend to not be able to see me,” she said of her role, noting the importance of representation in the arts. “In this production, you saw that I was black … but after you get past that, it’s ‘people are people.’”

A visit from Stella’s formerly well-to-do sister Blanche quickly invites friction between all involved when repelling personalities collide, illuminating complexities within the characters that have left audiences in disbelief for decades. And one line–mirroring the hastened pace of events set in motion through Blanche and Stanley’s battle of wills– underlies the tragic decision Stella makes in choosing to stay with her husband and betray her sister. 

“She’s basically lost every part of herself and is just trying to keep together the few pieces that she has, and Stanley just kind of like takes a baseball bat and shatters the whole thing, her whole illusion of who she still is,” Steele said of Blanche, played by Karen Sternberg. “I think people don’t tend to see those things. I think we come in with our minds bent a certain way and I think that once people were in the seats and they allowed themselves to go on the journey with us and not hold up to what they already dissected the show to be, I think it made for a much fuller experience.”

Steele highlighted the importance of choices in her portrayal. “Stella chooses the life that she wants, which is a much stronger choice than to be docile and to let things happen to you. But you choose to be in certain situations or choose to be with certain people and choose to stay or choose to leave,” Steele said. “Although she’s not typically played as a strong person, just because she doesn’t have a strong personality I feel like she is strong because of the choices that she makes for herself, whether they be right or wrong.”

For Sternberg playing Blanche meant not taking the character too seriously despite her trauma, something she found easier to do once she learned that Williams himself thought Blanche to be the funniest character he’d written. “What she’s been through belies an incredible strength and an incredible resourcefulness. This is someone who has, until this time, figured out a way to survive. So I wanted to play her as someone from the get-go who audiences were rooting for to make it.”

Written over 70 years ago, the examination of mental health, domestic abuse and toxic masculinity that is “Streetcar” reminds viewers everything old is new again. And that’s the message the director and cast hoped to get across–that the dynamics and events of the play aren’t left in the past and viewed by audiences as though in a museum, said Eric D. Pasto-Crosby, who played Stanley. “This kind of animal exists, and we need to address it. We need to stop acting like it’s not there,” he said.

Although the NRT’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” wrapped up its two-week run Feb. 23, the company’s next production, “Mary Poppins,” begins March 27 at TPAC.