May 25, 2000
How Susan Sullivan sculpted her rendition of Tennessee Williams' original Southern belle, Amanda Wingfield.
by Rob Kendt
Like Willy Loman, the character Amanda Wingfield was created in the 1940s by a young man both inspired and disillusioned by the parent whose thrall he wished to escape even as he strove to understand her.
But while Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, helped launch the career of a theatrical giant and added great roles to the stage literature, it also spawned another indispensible legend: the "supernatural" performance of Laurette Taylor as Amanda. I've heard people who saw her in the production's 1945 Broadway run call it "the greatest performance ever in the American theatre," and this isn't far off from the general tenor of printed reviews and contemporary recollections.
This nimbus of praise surrounding the original Amanda may partly explain why, while many male character actors dream of their shot at Willy Loman, female actors have been a bit more chary of Tennessee Williams' first Southern belle. Uta Hagen, no shrinking violet, has said she never attempted the role precisely because she'd seen Taylor's "definitive" rendition and had nothing to add.
There have been other noteworthy Amandas—film or TV versions with Katharine Hepburn, Joanne Woodward, Shirley Booth, even Gertrude Lawrence, and major revivals, including one with Maureen Stapleton. Most recently in Southern California, Sheree North played Amanda in a production in January at the Laguna Playhouse that got mixed reviews; last fall, Laura Dolas essayed the role to raves at the Berkeley City Club. Currently onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse is director Andrew Robinson's passionate, crystalline new production, with Susan Sullivan as Amanda. (TV viewers will recognize Sullivan from Dharma & Greg and Falcon Crest; she learned her craft at Hofstra University and at the Cleveland Playhouse, and appeared in Robinson's 1997 Matrix Theatre production of Dangerous Corner.)
The story of Sullivan's approach to the role, detailed in a series of interviews with Back Stage West, reveals that the challenges of playing Amanda, and of playing Tennessee Williams' stage poetry in general, lies deeper than in simply erasing a legendary original performance (not least because the number of those who saw it is dwindling) or mastering a Southern dialect. In his generous advice in the printed version of the play, Williams himself wrote of Amanda: "Her characterization must be carefully created, not copied from type."
The careful creation Sullivan undertook combined inspiration and intellect, research and instinct, exterior and interior work, body and soul.
First, to dispatch a pair of bugaboos: namely, Laurette and Edwina. No actress approaching the role can be unaware of Amanda Wingfield's origins as a fictionalized rendition of Williams' domineering mother, Edwina, nor, as I've noted, can they entirely ignore the legend of Laurette Taylor's performance. Eventually, though, to create their own Amanda, they've got to leave these powerful real-life women behind and make the role their own.
Still, there are some things to learn from Edwina and Laurette before one forgets about them—the most significant being that the great stage actress did not base her original performance on the real-life Edwina at all but forged her own fiery Amanda from the raw materials of herself, Williams' text, and, as one contemporary of Williams noted, her keen observation of the playwright himself.
Williams described Amanda in his introductory notes as "a little woman of great but confused vitality," and it's easy to imagine how the diminutive, fighting-Irish Taylor captured that quality. But more revealing may be Williams' recollection of Edwina's reaction to the play, in which many of Amanda's most distinctive coinages were lifted directly from his mother's infamous chatter: "Mother began to sit up stiffer and stiffer... touching her throat and clasping her hands. What made it especially hard for Mother to bear is that she is a tiny, delicate woman with great dignity and always managing to be extremely chic in dress, while Laurette Taylor invested the part with that blowzy, powerful quality of hers." Taylor reportedly greeted Edwina backstage with, "Well, Mrs. Williams, how did you like yourself?" Edwina replied years later with her own memoir, I Am Not Amanda.
In other words, it's clear—especially in retrospect—that just as Williams was not simply documenting his family, Taylor was not channeling Edwina. This realization should free actors to use the information about the role's origins (most of it available in Lyle Leverich's extraordinary 1995 biography, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams) as it suits them but not feel burdened by it. Said director Andrew Robinson, "I tried to explain to Susan that Amanda has never been played definitively. Laurette Taylor did a version that was appropriate for its time, and Susan will do one appropriate for today."
For Sullivan, a native New Yorker who appreciated from the start the risks of taking on an iconic Southern figure, the key was that on her first read through the play, she was able to say, "Oh, I know this woman." Having that initial identification was the cornerstone of the performance she built. "I knew who this woman was in my heart, and that's a great gift—I had a concept going in."
Specifically, Sullivan identified with Amanda's economic anxiety, as she grew up in a house "where we worried about the lights being turned off." She also identified, perhaps relucantly, with what she calls Amanda's "control freak kind of thing—I'm desperate to be in control of my life," which she sees Amanda inflicting on her children, Tom and Laura, and which, she believes, is likely what drove away her husband, the "telephone man who fell in love with long distance."
"That's one of the things I'm trying to set up in the first act, where she's sort of all over them and wanting to keep them and hold them and pull them and not let them be—and I'm sure she did that with her husband," said Sullivan. "I do that with the man that I live with, which is probably one of the reasons that I'm terrified of being married, because I think I would step even further over the line. But he happens to be a psychologist, so he sort of understands and goes, ‘That fixing thing—you know how tedious that is?' "
Armed with this initial take on Amanda, in rehearsals Sullivan soon found a way to physicalize this need for control—what director Robinson would come to call "this fluttery thing." Confessed Sullivan, "I like to use my hands. When I was in theatre in college, that was one of my biggest notes: ‘You use your hands too much.' But here's a part where I can use them."
And so she does: Sullivan fusses over Tom and Laura's clothes and hair, puts things away, straightens and tidies—and when there's no physical object in reach, her hands continue to rise and swoop in constant nervous motion, as if she could control the very air they breathe. It should be emphasized that all this busy, fluttery activity works for Sullivan, and for the play, because it's spontaneous, organic, arising from a part of her that intersects with Amanda. Without that identification, it would just be distracting stage business—but since it springs from a sympathetic conception of the character, Sullivan's nervous energy has a kind of grace. It's deeply expressive and telling, and recalls what Williams once said of Edwina: "That underlying hysteria gave her great eloquence."
Of course, the interior work had to go deeper than Amanda's need for control. As she further explored the nerves and fuss she could locate easily in herself, Sullivan also found connections in her relationship to her father—like Amanda's absent husband and soon-to-flee son, a drinker. In fact, the large portrait of the departed Mr. Wingfield which, per the stage directions, hangs conspicuously in the family's tenement apartment, is, in the current production, a picture of Sullivan's own father ("That's loaded for me," she said).
But acting is not simply mining oneself for correlations that fit the role; there is a story to tell, relationships to create, imaginary circumstances to construct. Early on in rehearsals, Sullivan applied a psychological insight to Amanda: "There's a definition of narcissism that when a parent is narcissistic, instead of the child seeing himself reflected in the mother's face and the mother's joy, the child of the narcissistic parent feels like, ‘What can I do to make her OK, to make her happy?' "
Sullivan also clued into another facet of Amanda's hands-on parenting: "I think that Amanda basically has no boundaries with her children." There are several obvious hints of this—Amanda calling Laura "sister" as if they're both schoolgirls and referring to "our gentlemen callers," or her invading Tom's privacy and reproaching his reticence by saying, "I have no secrets"—but, as director Robinson sees it, there is also in the text a clear psychological progression.
"Amanda and Tom are tied together in a way that essentially tells the story," he explained. "Tom has been forced into a situation where he's got to be both husband and father; ever since the father left, Amanda has been pushing him into those roles, which has built up his anger. Though we never called it incestuous, Oedipal, that was definitely the subtext. Tom isn't just there 'cause he's a good son; he's emotionally attached."
Following this logic, Tom's final, long-threatened decision to fly the coop is sealed by "seeing his mother in operation with another guy," the gentleman caller he brings home for Laura at his mother's insistence.
It's the encounter with the gentleman caller which not only builds to the play's heartbreaking climax but gives Amanda—and Sullivan—a chance to shine. In the performance seen for this article, it was this second act, which hurtles almost in real time through the Wingfield's ultimate evening together, that really sang. One reason is that Sullivan's "fluttery thing" is here animated by fresh flattery and flirtation; another is that in casting a tall, glamorous, classic beauty, Robinson fully intended "having an Amanda who's not over the hill, who's still a vital, sexual person," and it pays off when we, along with Raphael Sbarge's seething Tom, see her "in operation" with the gentleman caller.
But while some interpretations have suggested that this elaborate man-trap of an evening, honeyed with Southern hospitality, brings out not only Amanda's desperately unrealistic hopes for her daughter to be married but also her delusions about her own sexual desirability, Sullivan doesn't play a delusional Amanda. For one thing, in her case, desirability is manifestly not delusional. More importantly, she sees this priming of the young bachelor in more calculating terms, as Amanda's way of "softening him" for Laura, not for her own confused ends. Playing off Tony Crane's attractive gentlemen caller, Sullivan's Amanda does seem genuinely tickled and flirtatious, but, explained Sullivan, "Even if he were homely, I would have played it like that, to make him feel, Why, here's the most handsome man in the world."
Still, if her Amanda is clear about her role as her daughter's helper rather than her daughter's peer, she is not immune to the evening's redolent conjuring of the past. Earlier in the evening, she emerges in a lovely white dress she once wore as a young belle who received "17 gentlemen callers" in a single afternoon, and pauses amid the preparations to recall a scene of tragic beauty: the fields of jonquils and the malaria fever that conspired to weaken her resistance to the dashing young man who would be Tom and Laura's father.
Sullivan nails this, one of Williams' most lyrical speeches, capturing its rhapsodic cadences while layering in perfectly modulated strains of regret and self-reproach.
"I found a very strong image during the jonquil speech," said Sullivan. "I really see that country she's describing. Some nights it's strong, sometimes it's not (and that's where technique comes in). It's about the loss of a time of youth, a time of potentional, a time of beauty. It was also the time of breaking away from her mother, and her willfulness—that she married this man, made this tragic choice based on a lot of superficial things, probably. It's a very personal speech for me."
Finding a style that served the play was Robinson's job; executing it has been his designers' and his actors'. As Polly Warfield notes in her review of the show (p. 16), Robinson considers Williams to have been a kind of "magic realist," but this means not dreaminess or delicacy but a deeper, more mythical rendition of the real, in all its terror and beauty. Warfield calls Robinson's production "truer than real," and that feels right for a "memory play" that opens with Tom's comparing it to the work of a stage magician: "He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
When it came time for director Robinson to slot Sullivan's work on Amanda—based on her strong identification and solid craft—into his truer-than-real vision of the play, he found himself pushing her to be tougher, harsher, more violent.
"The hardest thing was to bring out the tough side of Amanda," he said. "The vulnerability, the sexuality of the woman—it's there for Susan. It was the tough thing—also that disappointed, bitter quality of Amanda—that we worked on. This is an angular, lurid memory of how this man broke away from this woman, and it has a dreadful ending, a drastic rupture. I think Tom never sees them again; he leaves them in the dark and he leaves them for good. It's a story of liberation, told by a guy who wants to liberated. Without that harshness from Susan, you'll think, What's the problem?"
If Sullivan needed pushing, Robinson said, she welcomed it.
"What she needed from me was to literally encourage her to go further, because this play isn't a realistic play," said Robinson. "So the behavior is not naturalism. It's informed by something that has that poetic, mythic dimension. It's not just that she has done a lot of television, but even that much of our theatre has been corrupted by the pseudo-naturalism of film and TV, unless it's Shakespearean verse. We forget that Tennessee Williams is every bit as stylistically demanding, and requires a commitment to be larger than life. She was afraid, but she was willing to be pushed."
Not just pushed but carried, as well. As countless actors before her—especially fearful non-Southerners—have discovered, Sullivan found that to follow the tempo and timbre of Williams' speeches unlocked much of the mystery of his style, and also made her realize that "the Southern thing was the easiest part-the rhythm of the character is so there." (She did also study with dialect coach Jessica Drake.) No, the real work, Sullivan discovered, was on a level Williams would understand.
"You can't edit yourself—you have to bring parts of your soul to a character like this," said Sullivan. "To work on great material, what you really end up working on is yourself, your own humanity. The business of living—that's your artwork, and the process of that is finding out who you are, what it all means. When you work on a great part like this, it accelerates that process of discovering who you are, and who others are. We are all reflections of each other."