Nearly two years since raising and then promptly dropping the curtain on its iteration of Tennessee Williams’s American classic, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” after one preview performance in March 2020 – you know, COVID – Old City’s Arden Theatre Company has turned on its lights for the first time.
For its 2022 season’s starter, the choice was easy: “Streetcar,” as directed by the company’s producing artistic director, Terrence J. Nolen, and starring Emilie Krause and Matteo Scammell as the Stella and Stanley Kowalski and Katharine Powell as Blanche DuBois.
That the Arden has hit the restart button at the same time as the rise of the Omicron variant is not lost on the Arden’s brain trust.
“It kind-of feels like a first date,” says Steven Rapp, the company’s director of marketing and communications. “We’ve got excited nerves. And even though we have done this so many times, it feels as if it is all brand new.”
For all of their fear and freshness, Rapp states how clearly awesome it is to witness how all of the waiting will now result in a wellspring of knowledge and experience.
“Twenty-two months is a long time to not have art on our stages,” says associate artistic director Jonathan Silver. “And that wait is driving us. Quite frankly, I’m nervous, but delighted.”
Speaking recently with Nolen about the passing of his favorite composer-playwright Steven Sondheim (whose “Into the Woods” will close the Arden’s 2022 season), I know well his calm and his desire at getting back on stage, safely, for his artists, staff and audiences. “Terrence is chill in the face of producing theater at all times, to say nothing of the added pressure of a pandemic,” says Silver. “The unknown doesn’t phase him, and that trickles down to the artistic community.”
To quote Rapp, “Terrence stands in the eye of the hurricane and invites everyone to join him.”
If any theater classic is a bottled-up typhoon waiting to burst, it is playwright Tennessee Williams’ “Streetcar.” Initially performed on Broadway in 1947, the torrid, Southern tale looks at the culture of privilege, mental health, manhood, misogyny and sexual assault, a prescient work considering the 21st century’s hot button topics.
“The set has been sitting downstairs just as we left them on March 12, 2020,” says Silver. “The lighting designs have been ready since that same date. The cast has been specially waiting. We’re so committed to sharing this with audiences.”
And unlike other theater companies who have focused on one-person shows and two-handers on stage during COVID, Silver stresses how the Arden’s take on “Streetcar” can often accommodate “a flurry of activity with 10 people on stage at a time.”
The rest of Arden’s season includes “Backing Track,” a world premier play from Philadelphia-Baltimore satirist R. Eric Thomas (Feb. 17 – March 27) and Ghanaian-American playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s comic “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” (May 5 – June 12) – plays workshopped via Zoom during the pandemic.
Nolen’s Old City company has not turned its back on virtual works – a dramatic, at-home mainstay of C-19’s quarantine. Just opened and streaming online until Jan. 30, “The Snowy Day and Other Stories” by Ezra Jack Keats was recorded at the Arden’s Hamilton Family Arts Center and features original music from the popular local band Ill Doots alongside some of Philly’s best-loved actors and singers.
“We’re looking to meet audiences wherever we can,” says Rapp. “Our commitment to children’s theater has been ongoing for over 20 years now. So our decision to mount that play displays our commitment to both sides of that equation, especially since we won’t be presenting children’s theater live at this point.
“This is not just a YouTube clip,” he added. “This is a fully realized production. We set the bar high.”
Setting a high bar is just what the Arden does.
Going back to “Streetcar,” what makes the Arden’s version so epic, in Silver and Rapp’s collective hive mind, is being able to hear Williams’s words of loss and suffering now, through Nolen’s modern lens. “They speak to this moment, to this generation,” says Silver.