Rene Augesen

Rene Augesen stars in the Yale Rep production of "A Streetcar Named Desire." (Michael McAndrews, mmcandrews@courant.com / August 28, 2013)

When New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre wanted to do "A Streetcar Named Desire," a large reason —- if not the primary one —- was to have René Augesen in the iconic role of Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams' ultimate faded and fragile Southern belle.

Not familiar with Augesen's work?

Pity, because she is one of the leading actors in theater, one of the unsung players who, though sometimes performing in New York, have made their greatest mark in regional theater.

She performed at the Rep in "The Beaux' Stratagem" and "A Woman of No Importance." For 12 years she was part of the core company of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, playing leading roles in classics such as "The Misanthrope," "Scapin," "A Doll House," "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" and newer work by Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. She also performed leading roles in South Coast Repertory Theatre, Great Lakes Theater Festival and Baltimore's CenterStage, among others.

"My interest was always to work —- period," says Augesen during a recent break in rehearsals, where she plays opposite Joe Manganiello of HBO's ''True Blood'', who plays her character's nemesis, Stanley Kowalski. "I never had the desire to be famous, a movie star, a celebrity or even recognizable. My primary interest was to be on the stage."

Augesen, who grew up in Odessa, Texas, was inspired to be an actress from her older sister who went to Yale and was an actress there.

"I saw her do it and she was really good," she says, "so I wondered if I could do that, too. I did a little bit of acting as an undergrad, then wandered around for a while, then auditioned for the Yale School of Drama." She graduated from that three-year acting program in 1996.

After Yale, Augesen moved to New York where she spent the rest of the '90s auditioning and working, getting roles in the Lincoln Center production of "Spinning Into Butter," "Macbeth" with Alec Baldwin and Angela Basset, and "It's My Party" with F. Murray Abraham.

"But all the parts that I was interested in doing were going to these big celebrities. I mean no disrespect but many of them had never been on the stage before. While I'm not saying I should have gotten the part, I did think I should have gotten an audition. There were thousands of really talented actors who weren't working because of the celebrity thing. And I found that my years for doing certain parts were passing me by. I thought if I wanted to play —- or even audition —- for Nora [in 'A Doll House'] and Hedda [Gabler] and Maggie [in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'] and all these great stage parts, it wasn't going to happen in New York. So I went where the work was."

Of her 12 years at the American Conservatory Theatre, Augesen says finding "an artistic home is invaluable; to be able to be somewhere where you're encouraged and allowed to do these gems that you can't count on doing anywhere else."

"She's a great actress and it's a great role," says Mark Rucker, who is directing "Streetrcar" and had worked with Augesen at A.C.T. where he is associate artistic director and South Coast Rep where he is an associate artist.

"I can see her in almost anything," says Rucker. "This is a great role for a great actress, requiring a depth of intensity as well as a lightness and she is truly able to access that spectrum. Not many actresses can."

Rucker planned to present the play at A.C.T. earlier this year with Augesen, but when "Streetcar"'s rights couldn't be obtained for that city because of a possible tour of a recent Broadway production starring Blair Underwood, Yale stepped in to take on the project for the fall.

Augesen says how she deals with the iconic nature of the role is to simply "not to consider other productions. I can't be thinking about Vivian Leigh and Jessica Tandy and all the others [including Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's 'Blue Jasmine," a contemporary riff on the play]. It would just make me insane."

And her thoughts on her co-star in the play?

"Yes, I have seen 'True Blood' and have seen him on it. I was pleased that he is so big and handsome because that makes my job a little bit easier, that is for Blanche to be intimidated by his character. But with any show that you're going in to do, all you're hoping for is that people are kind and that they're good and he is."