Searching for Amanda
When I chose to produce The Glass Menagerie, I had recently worked with Nancy Johnston (Souvenir), and so I asked her to play the role of Amanda. She immediately accepted. Amanda is one of the great roles for an actress of a certain age, and Nancy had had a fantastic time when she was here and was eager to return. Great for her, great for me (because I love working with her) and great for the audience, because I knew she would do a wonderful job.
A few weeks later, I get a call from her agent. Nancy has just been offered a job on Broadway.
Now, it's nice to be working with performers who have to turn us down because they're headed to the Great White Way (and by the way, Afton Williamson of ...Young Lady from Rwanda is currently on Broadway in David Mamet's play, Race), but as happy as I am for Nancy, I'm now in a bit of a bind.
Nancy feels just terrible about all this and immediately offers me two possible replacements - friends of hers that she thinks would be great for the role. And (this is how small the world of theatre is) I happen to know both of these women, having worked with them nearly 25 years ago when I was an apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Now, had she just suggested one name, I might have just offered the role and been done with it. But with two choices (and not having seen their work in 25 years), I decided to head to New York and audition them both. Nancy's agent then offered up a few more women for me to take a look at, so while it wasn't the full-blown audition process I usually go through where I see 20 or so actors for a role, I was going to be able to see 5 or 6, which felt just fine.
So, last week, I'm in the city, in the audition room, and fortunate enough to have Andrew Sellon (The Foreigner, Inspecting Carol, King Lear) there with me as my reader - that is, he would read Tom with all the Amandas.
The first actor we see is quite good (actually, at this level, they're all going to be very good). She's strong, she's engaged, she's direct, she finds some humor - all qualities I'm looking for. When she finishes the scene, I ask her to make an adjustment, looking for a little more vulnerability, which she does. Okay, I think, she could certainly do the role.
Then we see Number 2. It's a very different take on the role. She's a bit softer, and she has some very interesting comic timing that's bringing a whole other level of humor to the role, causing me to laugh at some very unexpected places. This time in my adjustment, I'm looking for a steelier spine - and she gives it to me. Another strong candidate.
Number 3 has all the steel I could ever want. She's an incredibly strong, forceful Amanda, and she makes some very surprising choices. Where others might plead, she warns, or even threatens. She tells us ahead of time that her timing is unusual, and it is, and it works. She's a little bigger than the others (I mean her acting style, not her physical size), which might be an issue for FlynnSpace, were she not also absolutely authentic and honest in her choices. I see so many colors that I don't ask for an adjustment.
Amandas 3, 4, and 5 all do lovely work, but by the end of the day, 2 and 3 are the ones that stay with me. We pack up, I thank Andrew, and I'm headed back to Vermont with a difficult decision to make.
And here's the thing. It's not really about who the better actor is. (They're both extremely good.) And it's not even about whose work I liked better (I liked them both.)
It's that the choice I make will have a tremendous impact on the overall direction of the show. They say that directing is 80% casting. I used to think that meant that if you cast good actors, they would do the bulk of your work for you. And while that's true to some extent, in this case, the play will go in very different directions depending on which Amanda I cast.
Speaking in very broad and general terms, if I cast Amanda 1, the play will probably have a lighter, gentler, more humorous tone to it. If Amanda is more bearable to be with, that casts a different light on Tom's relationship with her and on his decision to leave. We see Tom differently depending on the Amanda lens through which we view him.
On the other hand, if I cast Amanda 2, the play could be a bit heavier, a bit more intense, still with humor, but a darker humor. We perhaps end up sympathizing more with Tom than with Amanda.
This is the crux of directing. The playwright has told his story, but it's still open to interpretation by the actors and the directors. Is it our job to try to divine what story Williams wanted to tell and be true to that? Is it even possible? Or is the text simply a blueprint, waiting for us to put our own interpretation on it, to make it our own, based on our understanding of the play, and of familial relationships, and the way the characters resonate with us personally?
As of this writing, I've made a decision, but even that may not be the end of the story. There are some logistical hurdles that must be cleared, and I may or may not get my first choice. Fortunately, my second choice is just as appealing as my first.
I'll let you know.