Summing up the New York opening of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" in 1947, fellow playwright Arthur Miller wrote:
"What [that Broadway production] did was to plant the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theater … The play cannot be disparaged."
Miller, who, like Williams, was a rapidly emerging American writer in his 30s, planted another flag in the same cause when "Death of a Salesman" opened on Broadway two years later. That play cannot be disparaged, either.
These searing, soaring classics of American drama are not approached lightly by theater companies. Staging one of them in a season would be considered enough of an undertaking. Everyman Theatre decided to tackle both simultaneously in an enterprise dubbed "The Great American Rep."
It's the first time the 25-year-old company has presented either piece, and is believed to be the first time anywhere that these two plays have been presented with essentially the same cast. Everyman's resident company of actors, joined by guest artists, will perform the works in repertory.
"Death of a Salesman" opens this week, "A Streetcar Named Desire" the following week. Both run until June 12 on alternate nights and, on 18 occasions, on the same day.
"When I was looking for ways to work with the company in an epic way to celebrate our 25th anniversary, I asked, 'What if we did two great plays in repertory?'" says Everyman founding artistic director Vincent Lancisi. "I wondered what it would be like for an actor to have two, in some cases three, characters; to build those roles; to put one on one day and then try to shed it for another day — and what would happen if you have to do both in one day."
Choosing the works for this repertory approach came easily.
"If you Google the most iconic American plays, it always seems to be 'Salesman' and 'Streetcar,' in that order," says Lancisi, who will direct the "Salesman" production. "They are both about the elusiveness of the American Dream, and who do you know who hasn't had a run-in with that? The plays are heartbreaking, yes, but not really sad, because you care about these people; you're rooting for them."
Derek Goldman, who will direct Everyman's "Streetcar" production, picks up on that point.
"Both plays have human beings who are fighting ferociously against the tide of downward mobility," Goldman says. "Not just a socioeconomic tide, but aging and the psychology of getting older in a culture that values what's new, and where there's always someone who's better than you. These characters are fighting for a world rooted in kindness and decency."
Everyman resident actor Deborah Hazlett plays Linda, wife of hapless salesman Willy Loman in Miller's play (a role originated by Baltimore's own Mildred Dunnock). She notes the contemporary resonance in the piece.
"The characters are dealing with the loss of the status of workers," Hazlett says. "What Willy did was once valued, and now it's not. We're living that completely again.
Goldman sees a message for today's audiences in both plays.
"In 2016, with an election cycle like this one, and in this city, with all it has been going through, when you can feel the divisiveness all around us, [these works] offer something hopeful about how we have to learn to take care of each other," Goldman says.
The scenic designer for both productions, Daniel Ettinger, sums up the insights of Miller and Williams succinctly: "These plays tap into something about how human beings are wired."
Communicating that wiring has been a valuable experience for the actors participating in the Everyman adventure.
Danny Gavigan and Chris Genebach crisscross in a particularly close way. Genebach plays Willy Loman's oldest son, Biff, in "Salesman"; Gavigan plays the younger son, Happy. Gavigan also has the role of Stanley, wife of Stella and brother-in-law to the troubled Blanche in "Streetcar"; Genebach portrays Mitch, Stanley's poker-playing buddy, who almost becomes Blanche's new beau.
"With Stanley and Mitch, so much of their story is the alpha and beta dynamic," Gavigan says. "And that can strengthen our performances in 'Salesman,' where we're actually brothers."
Genebach notes that the rehearsal has generated "really interesting bonds offstage and onstage. You learn a lot about each other. Danny and I have discussed our relationships with our families. I identify with some things about Biff. Willy reminds me of my granddad. Each character is so fully defined," the actor says.
Everyman Theatre resident ensemble member Beth Hylton will be onstage this week performing a pivotal role in "Outside Mullingar," a play about love and regret in rural Ireland by John Patrick Shanley, author of "Doubt" and "Moonstruck." Come spring, Hylton will tackle one of the most famous and demanding roles in theater ¿ the fragile, issue-filled Blanche who propels Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
The principal characters have also been defined in ways beyond the printed word, thanks to indelible portrayals on stage and in film, especially in the case of "Streetcar."
The movie version of Williams' play featured brilliant performances by Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley (he created the role on Broadway). Willy Loman has been brought to life by such prominent actors as the role's creator, Lee J. Cobb, and, in recent times, the likes of Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
"Doing a role labeled iconic is terrifying," says Wil Love, Everyman's Loman. "Everyone will have an opinion about how it should be played. I have discovered a lot of things about Willy so far; the audience will help me discover more."
When it comes to Stanley in "Streetcar," the smoldering image of an underdressed Brando looms large.
"It took me weeks to get Brando out of my head," Gavigan says. "But I never felt as sexy as when I put on the T-shirt David [Burdick] designed."
The "Streetcar"/"Salesman" project requires 76 costumes and 20 wigs in all, a record at Everyman.
"Although the plays are very similar in time period, I think of them separately," says Burdick, the costume designer. "I took a different approach to color for each. The world of 'Salesman' is gray and cool, but when you go into Willy's mind, it's almost like a colorized MGM movie. 'Streetcar' is more lush, with a lot more warmth."
The Everyman cast members have also spotted connections between the two plays they had not noticed before.
Whatever the two postwar dramas have in common, they're still distinct, which means the actors will have to be ever alert, particularly when those double-header days arrive.
"You do have to push a switch in your mind," Genebach says.
There's a lot of physical switching, too. Hazlett, for example, has to change wigs four times in the two shows.
"The dressing room is insane," she says.
Burdick has tried to give the actors, many of them long familiar to Everyman patrons, different looks for each of their roles.
"I hope audiences don't recognize them, at least for a while," the designer says.
Ettinger has also sought a distinctive look for the plays, while making it feasible for quick turnarounds by the stage crew.
"I tried to start by not thinking about how the two plays fit together," Ettinger says. "The sets share some parts, but 'Salesman' is more skeletal and doesn't have all the realism that 'Streetcar' has. The marathon that these actors are running, the [stage crew] is going through the exact same thing."