Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” explores emotions and problems of daily life

Thursday, Feb. 20, through Saturday, Feb. 22, Lawrence University put on four performances of Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer-winning play “Street Scene.” A cast and crew of over fifty students developed this adaptation under the careful direction of Professor Kathy Privatt, with costume design by Kärin Kopischke. To thank each and every individual involved, including a cairn terrier, would be a substantial undertaking and may well encompass every section of the newspaper. That said, these Lawrence thespians worked hard together, and after a term of effort, pulled it off swimmingly.

“This play is a 24-hour snapshot of life in a mean place of New York,” explained sophomore Isabel Hemley, who played Rose Maurrant. “It starts out with some comic moments and quickly becomes quite serious. It shows how life can suddenly turn on itself and become something you never expected.”

“Street Scene” explores the ins and outs of the daily lives of the inhabitants of a New York City brownstone tenement during the early twentieth century. Topics discussed are as far-reaching as fidelity, relationships, abuse, communication, discrimination, identity and existential angst. The tone is at times light and slice-of-life and at others despairing and grim. Story arcs are wide-reaching, from the marital troubles of the Maurrants to the pregnancy of the always off-stage Mrs. Buchanan to the idle, politically incorrect gossip of Emma Jones.

Perhaps the most representative story arc is the relationship between Sam Kaplan, a Jewish boy about to graduate college, and Rose Maurrant, a girl whose familial and work stressors take an increasing toll on her wellbeing.

“The coolest thing about the play is that it works on multiple levels,” said senior Erik Morrison, who played Abraham Kaplan. “You can see an exciting marital melodrama in the Maurrants’ story, a romance stymied by anti-Semitism and closed-mindedness between Rose Maurrant and Sam Kaplan, or a naturalist depiction of what it’s like for normal people to deal with each other in such close proximity and hardship.”

“For me, understanding the play came through figuring out who Sam and Rose were,” explained freshman Joe Johnson, who played Sam Kaplan. “We’re constantly talking but never truly listening to what the other person has to say, something that I think applies to the present just as much as the fast-paced 1920s during which it was written. A lot of the characters say things they don’t really mean, often without realizing the consequences their words can have.”

With its large cast and elaborate set,which is a two-story walk-up tenement right there on stage, “Street Scene” is highly kinetic. Characters pop out of windows, jump up and down the stairs and are thrown around on the streets. It is loud and boisterous, but appropriately so. In its complicated and realistic treatment of human interactions, the play is a cacophonous commentary on human relationships.

The play is at times an observation of casual conversations. At others, it is a deeply affecting and even brutal human condition story.

“Rice is, for the most part, quick to show us how characters who reinforce harmful ideologies are wrong,” Morrison continued. “As a result, it ages well — it doesn’t just become an artifact of its time but speaks to ways in which we can still remove oppressive and restrictive ideology from our lives to establish ‘a world based upon human need,’ as my character says.”

If you missed out on the play, Lawrence offers another chance to experience the opera version on March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m. and March 9 at 3 p.m