The first voice in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" belongs to Tom Wingfield, a budding poet trapped in a boring day job. Serving as guide through the playwright's exquisitely crafted layers of memory and anxiety, Tom dispenses "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion."
For its season-opening production of this certified classic of the American stage, Everyman Theatre has cast one of its most versatile and gifted resident artists, Clinton Brandhagen, as Tom.
"I had to read the play in high school," the Calgary-born Brandhagen, 36, said, "but I never looked at it again."
The actor has been making up for that time gap, plunging into the world of Williams and "The Glass Menagerie," which put the author on the map in 1945.
Brandhagen feels a certain connection to Tom, especially that character's determination to get out of a financially steady, but unsatisfying, routine and pursue a dream.
"I can draw on some personal family issues," Brandhagen said. "My family didn't want me to be an actor. I live hand-to-mouth, but I love what I do, so I don't see it as a job."
His list of credits includes a Broadway engagement with Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally's "Master Class" and performances with several theater companies in Washington. In 2007, he joined the Everyman troupe and quickly made his mark.
Vibrant performances in Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" last season and productions of Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" and Charles Ludlam's "The Mystery of Irma Vep" a few seasons earlier have revealed Brandhagen's range.
For "Menagerie," which is being directed by company artistic director Vincent Lancisi, the actor zeroed in on the much-discussed autobiographical side of the play. Williams' own family is very much reflected in the play; a big part of the playwright's nature may be in there, too.
"A lot of people say that Tom is gay because Tennessee Williams was gay. I looked for places in the text that would justify that," Brandhagen said. "I think it is there, especially in Tom's very last speech. But you can't preconceive too much. I just put it all in a blender and play it out."
Tom's way of escaping from home life is late-night movies and bars. Brandhagen has an escape mechanism, too — not that he ever feels the need to run away from the theater. In his case, it's all about adding another fulfilling dimension to his life.
In 2000, after a few years on the road as an actor, Brandhagen bought a camera and some self-teaching books. One focus of his new interest was fellow thespians.
"I got tired of seeing good actors with bad head shots," he said. "That's how photography completely filled up my life when I'm not onstage."
Brandhagen, who lives primarily in New York and partly in Baltimore, developed his own business that has attracted clients in the theater and corporate worlds.
He also does artistic photography (despite being colorblind); one specialty is cityscapes. He often layers multiple photos to produce a rich, painterly-looking image — a form of "pleasant illusion" the character of Tom would appreciate.