Tennessee Comes Back to Sewanee

A landmark staging of A Streetcar Named Desire—in Sewanee’s Tennessee Williams Center—honors the literary legacy of one of America’s greatest playwrights.

Matt Acosta as Mitch and Amelia Barakat as Blanche DuBois.

Matt Acosta as Mitch and Amelia Barakat as Blanche DuBois.

This winter—the last week of February and first days of March—Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, returned to a place he had never been: Sewanee.

The occasion for Williams’ arrival on the Mountain was the staging of one his most acclaimed plays, A Streetcar Named Desire. But the performances were more than just the presentation of a play. They were an impressive collaboration of literary scholars, their professors, and an outstanding production team who brought to life the French Quarter and the family crucible in which Blanche, her sister Stella, brother-in-law Stanley, and love interest Mitch enacted what Williams himself once called the “war between romanticism and hostility.”

As most of us know, Williams left the rights to his plays—and the substantial income generated by those rights—to the University of the South, though he never visited Sewanee in person. Williams’s philanthropic inspiration was not the Arcadia of William Alexander Percy, but his own maternal grandfather, the Rev. Walter E. Dakin, who had been a student at the School of Theology in 1895. A century plus one year after the Rev. Dakin’s matriculation, in 1996, the Williams bequest arrived on campus to great excitement, promising the creation of a nationally recognized writer’s conference, a well-equipped theater, and superb writing programs.

By 1996, of course, the bequest was not a surprise, having been known since Williams’ death in 1983. The playwright’s will ensured that resources were in place to take care of his sister, Rose, whose fragile existence had been the inspiration for at least two of Williams’s best-known characters—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and Laura of The Glass Menagerie. At Rose’s death, the estate came to Sewanee.

The Sewanee production of Streetcar was directed by Theatre Professor Jim Crawford in collaboration with professors Jennifer Matthews (costumes) and Jordan Vera (lighting and sound); a talented theatre intern completing her first stage design, Alena Kochinski, C’18; a lively company of actors including Amelia Barakat, C’25, absolutely nailing the role of Blanche; and an army of production staff under the technical direction of Chynna Bradford and John Marshall.

On Friday of opening weekend, Crawford, Craighill, Kochinski, Matthews, and Vera hosted a public discussion on Tennessee Williams and on the process of taking the play from page to stage. 

From left to right: Jim Crawford, Virginia Craighill, Alena Kochinski, Jennifer Matthews, and Jordan Vera held a panel discussion on the Streetcar set to talk about the creative process behind the production.

From left to right: Jim Crawford, Virginia Craighill, Alena Kochinski, Jennifer Matthews, and Jordan Vera held a panel discussion on the Streetcar set to talk about the creative process behind the production.

“We started planning for this over a year ago,” said Crawford.  “We knew it was the 25th anniversary of the Tennessee Williams Center, and we hadn’t done one of his plays in a while.  He’s one of the true greats, and we thought it was time.” Crawford chose Streetcar because it allows for more student actors than some of Williams’ other plays, and because it still has so much to say to our world about gender and power.  In addition, he added the character of Young Blanche, who appeared as a musical ghost/memory on stage in this production.  It not only gave an additional student an opportunity to be on stage, but also advanced the storytelling. “Young Blanche is not in the script,” he said. “But it seemed like a way to both add an actor and to physicalize something that’s central to the text.  When Young Blanche appears, Blanche has a mirror of sorts to examine herself.”

The plan for Streetcar involved two separate nodes of activity. Crawford and the Department of Theatre and Dance set about planning the production at least a year in advance, while Virginia Craighill swept in from retirement to reprise a course on the plays of Tennessee Williams she had taught for several years in the English Department. “We knew Streetcar was going to be performed, so it was a great opportunity to bring this course to Sewanee students,” said Craighill, who also notes that three of the actors in the production—Barakat, Grayson Davis, and Matt Acosta—were in the class. 

“Plays are made to be performed and not read,” said Crawford, speaking to Craighill’s class a couple of days after the last performance. That insight is one that has long been embraced by Sewanee English professors. Pamela Macfie put the “page to stage” concept before her Shakespeare classes more than two decades ago, and Craighill has long adopted pedagogy that considers how the written word is translated and mediated through the creativity of the actors and production crews of a stage performance.

“Tennessee Williams is unusual in the quality and the amount of stage direction he puts in plays, as well as its lyricism,” Craighill explained during the “Page to Stage” panel discussion. She noted his stage directions included suggestions about costumes, lighting, music, and even how to capture meaning through a facial expression.

“The directions are really helpful, because you could see his vision, but we didn’t always do things exactly as Williams intended,” said Jennifer Matthews, who led the costume design team. A case in point: The white dress that Williams imagined became lavender through Matthews’ creative process. Matthews set about to design costumes that reflected the mood of the characters. When the main character, Blanche, has a firmer grasp on reality, she wears lavender; at other times she wears the deep red robe that Williams called for. 

The Friday panel discussion brought the two nodes of activity together, with Craighill providing exegesis of the text and the theatre professors and interns explaining how the text interacted with their own processes. Each brought to their creative process cultural references that informed the production, whether or not they appeared explicitly. For Crawford and Kochinski, one such reference was the Tom Waits song “Waltzing Matilda,” which includes lyrics that seem to capture Blanche’s vulnerability. Kochinski’s set was designed to emphasize that vulnerability, with sheer curtains, see-through walls, and an inverted stage where everything was upstage. “Nothing on this stage will hide you,” Kochinski explained. “We were also trying to capture the beauty and the scariness of the French Quarter. Everything is both lacy and scary.”

Ben Davis and Victoria Ryan as Stanley and Stella Kowalski

Ben Davis and Victoria Ryan as Stanley and Stella Kowalski

Both Matthews and Vera were inspired by the painter Edward Hopper, whose moody paintings are often of dark, lonely, isolated, and vulnerable people wearing spots of vibrant color. “Hopper is great with shadows,” Vera said. “The set design employed a large screen at the back on which we could project colors that reflected Blanche’s mood.” From a tablet, Vera ran through the light cues, demonstrating to the audience how lighting and sound bolstered the script. 

If page to stage is the story, then the story has a cast of many. It was a community project, as theater should be. “Gone are the days when the director would work with the actors and then at some point hand the show over to the other parts of the production—the costumes, the lighting, the music,” Matthews said. “All of us had our own inspirations and our own thought processes, but we also continually talked with each other and played off each other’s vision.” 

Theater is a team sport, especially at Sewanee.

But what of the play? I first saw Streetcar as an 18-year-old freshman at another college, performed by a traveling troupe. I loved it. Like many experiences at my college, coming from a very rural community, watching the play was life-changing. In 2024, I saw it again at age 68—50 years between viewings. The difference was profound. Either I understood the play better because of my life experiences or the play was just rendered in a more approachable way. (I did have a front-row seat the second time.)

For a very brief summary, Blanche, who has endured cascading traumas—from the death of her family to the suicide of her husband and her own explorations into self-destruction—has traveled to the New Orleans home of her sister Stella and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, because she has no place else to turn. The Kowalski home in the French Quarter proves to be no safe haven, as tension between Blanche and Stanley escalates, producing even more trauma. 

One central scene in the play is Blanche’s birthday party, which ends in Stanley slamming a plate down and breaking it. At the table is a layer cake, piled high. I could not help but think about Blanche’s layered trauma, in large part because Barakat’s performance was so powerful. The play may be about the war between romanticism and hostility, as Williams said, but it is also about trauma and resilience. 

I asked Sewanee Research Professor of Psychology Sherry Hamby about the effect of writing about trauma in a play like Streetcar. (Watch her TED Talk, “Trauma is Everywhere, But So Is Resilience.”) “In the time that Tennessee Williams wrote this play, it would have been fairly cutting-edge to reveal abuse or think about such events as traumatic,” she said. “Think about ‘The Honeymooners’—the skit and show that ran in the 50s with catch lines such as ‘To the moon, Alice!’ and ‘Pow! Right in the kisser!’—both open threats of domestic violence that were played for laughs. So Streetcar was a powerful portrayal of the real damage that follows domestic violence, rape, alcohol misuse, and homophobia. I think a lot of 20th-century literature was more about getting people to take these problems seriously and bring them out from ‘behind closed doors.’ Once it was more accepted that such violence was damaging, it was easier to tell stories about resilience and overcoming trauma.”

Hamby suspects Williams fostered personal resilience by writing about his life experiences and turning them into art. But the world of Streetcar is more a world of endurance than resilience. At the end of the play, not much has changed in the Kowalski household. All the violence and all the potential for violence is still there, even if Blanche is not. 

Blanche inhabits the world of the play by trying her best to repair its brokenness. And in her attempts to do so, she wanders into fantasy and away from the ugliness of her desperation. 

At the Tuesday class, Barakat talked about the power of Williams’ script. “This play is so well written that Blanche was really accessible,” she said. “You didn’t have to think about what Blanche was experiencing because the script is so good.” 

Barakat also let her classmates in on a secret. Before each performance, she read to herself a quotation from Tennessee Williams to focus her mind on the performance: “There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts. ... Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see each other in life.”