“This is my first role in a Tennessee Williams play, but it’s true that I’ve been told that I should play Blanche since I was thirteen. God knows what that means. But, having played him now, I long to do all the rest of him. It’s such a joy to do his plays.”
The role is Amanda Wingfield, the play The Glass Menagerie, the speaker Madeleine Potter, who began a conversation with me by defending the woman she plays, a character that, she argues, has not been fairly understood and appreciated by many.
“I’m lucky to be given the opportunity to play this much-maligned character,” Potter said. She stressed that the great Williams “doesn’t regard her in the same unforgiving light that people are sometimes taught to regard her.”
Potter leads the cast of the current revival of what is inarguably one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. The production at Ford’s Theatre runs through February 21st and the reviews have been glowing.
“Madeleine Potter embodies the character with an appealing complexity,” wrote Roy Maurer on DC theatre Scene. In The Washington Post, Peter Marks agreed: “The four actors, cast by director Mark Ramont — starting with Madeleine Potter as a fretful tornado of an Amanda Wingfield — securely stake out their psychological terrain in this all-time-great memory play, one of the foundational dramas of American theater and a template for the hundreds of other family stories that have fueled the imaginations of the nation’s dramatists ever since.”
I sat down with Potter recently and asked her if Amanda was a part that she had always hoped to play. “No, not at all. In fact, I never really understood the play until my daughter wrote an essay about it in secondary school. I went back and read the play and thought, ‘How extraordinary. It’s written with such incredible understanding and insight into the two female characters. I was struck by his profound understanding of the female situation.’”
Potter said that it was the perspective of her daughter that provided an entry for her into the play. “She had written such unusual and perceptive things about the character of Laura, which opened my eyes in a fresh, new way to how magnificent the play is.”
THE GLASS MENAGERIE
January 22 – February 21
511 Tenth Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20004
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Once cast, Potter found herself realizing things about the play, and about the family at its core, that she had understood on some level, “but I could never have been articulate about them before. Doing it, things have revealed themselves in a new light, and the play becomes deeper every night we do it.”
One such epiphany involved the title image, which many people who analyze the play associate only with Amanda’s daughter Laura. “The glass menagerie is the whole family. This came up in rehearsal: how different they are from the others in the neighborhood and in the tenement. Each is an extraordinary character, with a massive imagination.” Laura is not the only member of the family for whom the metaphor applies. “These are creatures infinitely capable of illumination and infinitely breakable.”
Central to the play, Potter contends, is the socio-economic circumstances of the family, which is introduced in the play’s opening lines. “Another thing that I have felt more and more and more every day is how important the theme of poverty is in the play. People don’t bring that up and that’s wrong. They are living in a tenement during the depression. There was not enough to eat. People are selling things on street corners. That context is necessary in order to understand the characters and what happens to them.”
The rest of the cast are familiar to local audiences. Tom Story plays her son Tom Wingfield, Jenna Sokolowski is daughter Laura Wingfield, and Thomas Keegan rounds out the quartet as The Gentleman Caller. “I so admire my co-actors; very lucky in them all.”
If playing Amanda is, for Potter, a baptism into the oeuvre of a master playwright whose work she has never before performed during a long and varied career, the run at Ford’s is a homecoming. “I left a long time ago, and I haven’t been back in ages. It’s been Proustian in the extreme. I go around the corner and time collapses; suddenly, I’m standing with one foot in the past and one in the present. Your body remembers places: streets that come out and meet each other; the architecture of buildings. Also, the play itself is about memory. My sixth-grade English teacher came to the play! And I haven’t seen you in years…”
At this point, I will reveal that Madeleine and I have shared a long friendship, one that has lately been interrupted by geography. I met her when I, along with her beloved brother Paul, was in the cast of Bart Whiteman’s production of Henry V at Source Theatre Company. Their mother, who acted under the name Madge Daly, was also a friend; I have a vivid memory of her as Aunt Julie in Hedda Gabler at Source (with Bart as Judge Brack). Madeleine and I auditioned together for Brian Friel’s Lovers, but it was Madge who ended up cast in the show.
It was after Madeleine had moved to New York, worked on Broadway, and begun her film career, that the much-admired theatre and film director Lindsay Anderson (If.…, O Lucky Man!) brought her back for her last DC appearance, as Ophelia at The Folger in 1985. (The cast included Ed Gero and Michael Tolaydo.)
In 1996 (and I am sure of the date, because I recently found my ticket stub), Peter Hall’s long-running revival of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband transferred from London’s West End to Broadway, with much of its British cast in the leads. (Some other roles were played by Yanks, including Valerie Leonard.) A family emergency caused one of the actors to return to the UK, and Madeleine took over the female lead, Lady Chiltern. She was then approached by the producers to play the part in London, and she has been based there ever since.
I asked Madeleine what it was that had kept her in London. “I don’t plan things,” she began, before adding, with a smile, “which doesn’t mean I don’t have great plans. But I’ve never planned things. I’m a gypsy in that way. My real career began in New York as a teenager and I had an incredible career there, but I needed a life change.”
Madeleine already had dual citizenship (Ireland), so there was no legal impediment to working in the EU. “I have two passports. I already had an agent in London. When An Ideal Husband happened, I walked through that door, along with my child, and…one thing led to another. At this stage, I suppose I live there. I’m used to being foreign; I grew up all over the world.” Her daughter was an infant when Madeleine made the move. Consequently, she declared that, “My daughter is culturally English, as well as American, as she grew up there.”
Madeleine rattled off a list of some of the “beautiful, extraordinary experiences” she has had on stage during her time in London, beginning with the world premiere at the Royal Court of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, which cast, in that production (which occurred about a year-and-a-half after Kane’s suicide), was comprised of only three actors (“an amazing experience”); After Mrs Rochester on the West End; Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the National.
There has been “film and TV work also. I’m in the position in London of being an actor, versus being an American actor, so I’m not limited to certain roles, though that position comes with pressing through a certain amount of cultural resistance. I’ve played Irish roles, English roles, West Indian roles…”
There have also been the roles in American plays, such as the afore-mentioned All My Sons, in a cast that included Laurie Metcalf, James Hazeldine, and Ben Daniels. I remember reading in The New York Times about the unusual impact the production had had; otherwise reserved-seeming British men weeping openly by play’s end.
This prompted Madeleine to talk about the way in which “the British love Miller, and they get him, I think, more unreservedly than we do. It was extraordinary to do it, and that’s not surprising, you know: you get onto the back of this giant warhorse, and you and the audience go somewhere unbelievable.”
After Mrs Rochester was a devised piece, shepherded by director Polly Teale, inspired by Wide Sargasso Sea, the Jean Rhys novel which itself is a prequel to Jane Eyre. “It was a brilliant conceit, to tell the story of the writer. I played Jean when young and Diana Quick played her in older life, while Mrs Rochester is always on stage, so there is a triumvirate of the three; everybody else played multiple parts. Mrs Rochester is an alter ego to Rhys. It’s a memory play that metaphorically covered wide expanses of time, and the experiences of these women, and that extraordinary book, a truly great novel. It was an unforgettable experience.”
After a regional tour, the piece came to London and transferred to the West End. “It wasn’t at all obvious that it would do well on the West End, whatever that means, because, of course, the truth is that you never know. But Sonia Friedman [the producer renowned in this country for bringing British productions over to Broadway] saw it and thought it would do well on the West End, and we had an extraordinary run. People still come up to me on the street and tell me how much they loved it.”
On the telly front, Madeleine played Elizabeth Arden in a recent season of the current series Mr Selfridge. That has aired in the UK, but hasn’t yet been seen by US audiences. (The series runs here on the BBC America network.)
“When I made my first film [The Bostonians], I had only done stage. I was, looking back, constantly ready — even for me, who has an excess of physical energy. But, when you are called fourteen hours a day, you are in front of the camera for only really brief periods. There is a lot of waiting involved, and understanding how everything works, and being ready in that moment, when science and acting come together.
“For the acting to be good, you have to let it be as fresh as you can. I always think that film is a bit like rehearsing for the stage. You have to be wide open and improvisational in your approach. A film is generally not shot sequentially. It will eventually be put together in an editing room. It’s very different than stage in that way. Stage is the telling of an entire story every time you do it. I think that there are people particularly good at one or the other; some are good at both.” In that latter category, Madeleine cited Maggie Smith and her Bostonians colleague Vanessa Redgrave.
“It’s a wonderful thing to have relationships that last a long time; amazing in this collaborative art form to work with people more than once. I did four films with Merchant/Ivory and had great personal relationships with them.” After The Bostonians, Madeleine again worked under the famed partnership of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory on their films Slaves of New York, The Golden Bowl, and The White Countess.
“It’s unique for film in terms of how many films they have made together. But also, the wider family among their actors continues to this day. It’s a kind of weird tribe. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s incredible to do four projects with the same director. You get to know each other better and better, and there’s so much further you can go. That is so rare out in the commercial world. It’s such a privilege to work with someone over a long period of time.”
Madeleine’s daughter, “Paul’s godchild, another Madeleine, the sixth — Madeleine Daly is her stage name — appeared in The White Countess with me, at the age of nine. Brilliant performance.”
It was a British play (now going further back in time) that was the occasion for Madeleine’s Broadway debut. “Plenty started at The Public and then moved uptown. What a good way to be introduced to Broadway — I had one big scene and could spend the rest of the time observing, and racing around the theatre, and not having to carry the whole play.” When her contract was to expire, Plenty extended its run, but she had to leave, because she’d already signed up with her next Broadway show, Slab Boys.
“I wish we’d done the whole trilogy. We did the first one, but I thought it’d be amazing to do all three, and to follow the kids further.” That cast included Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Val Kilmer, and Jackie Earle Haley. It was written by Scottish playwright John Byrne who designed “the sets and the costumes as well — a superb artist. The graffiti on the walls was so specific — the detail of it — extraordinary.”
It was a thrill for me when Madeleine invited me to see a three character play she did at the legendary HB Studios in its tiny space in the Village. After the show, she introduced me to her cast-mate Uta Hagen. “The Silver Fox [was the name of the play]. She was so nice to me. She gave me a copy of her book [Respect for Acting, which is inarguably one of the most widely-read and influential books about acting] and a medal of Saint Joan, who happens to be a person I’m obsessed with. I’m Catholic and took her as my confirmation saint. ‘I’m passing it on to you for when you play Saint Joan.’ And I never payed it. Maybe I’ll direct it.” (Madeleine, in addition to teaching, has begun to direct.) “That was an amazing experience. I loved acting with Uta, and Herbert [Berghof, Hagen’s husband, also a renowned teacher] was a very great director.”
We didn’t even get, during this interview, to all of Madeleine’s Broadway work, which included working with Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, for whom she did several plays, including as Abigail in The Crucible opposite Martin Sheen. And there was Kafka’s Metamorphosis, although, on other occasions, she has spoken to me about her admiration for its adapter/director, the enfant terrible Steven Berkoff. That play marked the debut as a Broadway actor of Mikhail Baryshnikov, about whom Madeleine speaks with great affection. She told me about the rigor and discipline of his daily preparation.
During the summer of 1983, I was in New York with a play I had done in DC. It was about ninety minutes long, performed at a second floor space in Chelsea. I often would do the show, go out for drinks with anyone from DC who was in the audience that night, and then hop a subway and travel uptown to meet Madeleine, who was doing Lady Anne opposite Kevin Kline in Central Park. (Their uncut Richard III — one of Shakespeare’s longest texts — was over four hours in length, which explains the fortuitous timing.)
That was a magical summer for me, and I remember, in particular, the Monday night when there was no show for either of us. Madeleine and I were hanging out on the upper West Side. Suddenly, she said that she wanted to go into the park and make a pilgrimage to the Delacorte Theater.
“That was beautiful!” Madeleine remembered. “We went and stood on the stage…That was my first Shakespeare. I’d had no training in him and I was very young.” She had already worked with the legendary voice teacher Kristin Linklater on the Scottish accent for Slab Boys, and Linklater then worked again with the Shakespearean neophyte. “And my brother Paul said to me, ‘Don’t worry. Shakespeare is the easiest to do because he is the best.’ And Kevin was lovely, very generous. I liked acing with him.”
I remember Madeleine telling me that, one night, Marian Seldes (“who was extraordinary as Margaret”) came to her before the show and said, “Madeleine, you must be especially brilliant tonight. Lynn Fontanne died today.”
That memory inspired Madeleine to look ahead: “I would love to do all of those Henry plays, playing Margaret, and ending up with Richard III.”
That provoked the question, what other roles would she want to play? She mentioned “lots of Tennessee Williams,” Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, and Chekhov’s Arkadina. She then mentioned that her daughter Madeleine is studying in Manchester and working on a Chekhov role with her teacher David Salter, “who Tom Story knows. It’s extraordinary, the number of people Tom and I know in common.”
At this point, we wandered into the books section at Kramerbooks. Madeleine was on the lookout for a gift for a friend, and so, before parting, we found the section devoted to her beloved Oscar Wilde.
I will leave you with something our mutual friend (the wonderful actor and Source alum) Steven Dawn had recently relayed to Madeleine, concerning something said about her by the late Bart Whiteman, Source’s founder, and to be filed under the heading: it can be strange and surprising how one is viewed by others. “Steve told me that Bart had once said to him, ‘You know how Madeleine seems so fragile and pre-Raphaelite? Well, don’t be fooled. She has a mean left hook.’”