Model Role Actor: He's got a list of movie and Broadway credits. Now, Robert Sean Leonard is adding Baltimore's Center Stage to his resume.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He casually drops the names of Ethan Hawke and Chris Reeve and Keanu and Winona. And though his movie-star good looks -- mahogany-colored hair drooping just so above his deep-set eyes -- might lead you to expect a movie-star attitude, what strikes you about actor Robert Sean Leonard is how serious and self-effacing he is.

Maybe this is why Leonard hasn't done many interviews. It's certainly why he hates having his picture taken, submitting to the process as if it were an inoculation, then apologizing for his reluctance.

Still, once he gets started, he has lots to say about Center Stage's production of "The Glass Menagerie," in which he's portraying playwright Tennessee Williams' alter ego, Tom; about the theater company he and some of his famous young friends founded in New York; and about why a nationally recognized actor, with such Broadway credits as Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" and a Tony nomination for "Candida," and such movie credits as "Dead Poets Society" and "Much Ado About Nothing," has come to a regional theater in Baltimore.

The role of Tom in Williams' largely autobiographical 1944 drama is one that 28-year-old Leonard says he's always yearned to play. "You have lists in your head of plays you want to do in each decade," he explains. "This is something I wanted to do before I was 30."

He was so eager that he approached Center Stage. Tim Vasen, who is directing "The Glass Menagerie," recalls, "As soon as I heard he was interested, I just thought he was a perfect match."

Vasen admits he was a bit surprised that an actor with Leonard's national profile was interested in coming to Baltimore. "But what I already knew about Robert was that stage work is very important to him, and he wants to play the great roles and you have to go out of town sometimes to do that," the director says.

Acknowledging a preference for greasepaint over klieg lights, Leonard points out that compared to his friends "Ethan, Winona, Keanu I've done only a few movies." But he recognizes "what [movies] can do for an actor. It's great to have somebody in the theater say, 'I know him. He'd be great in this show.' "

Although Leonard punctuates an interview with light-hearted impersonations and accents, he comes across as thoughtful and bright -- qualities that also impressed Vasen when he and Leonard had their first long conversation about "The Glass Menagerie" in New York. "He struck me as being a smart and hard-working actor," Vasen says. "He works really, really hard to get it right, questions all of his own and other people's assumptions and goes for the tough stuff."

For "The Glass Menagerie," Leonard read Lyle Leverich's acclaimed 600-page 1995 biography, "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams," as well as parts of Williams' memoirs and many of his short stories and plays. He even listened to recordings made by the playwright. (One of Leonard's best impersonations is of Williams' soft drawling voice, tinged with the cadences of New Orleans, a city that was close to the playwright's heart.)

This is Leonard's first Williams' play, but he has seen his share of "Menagerie" movies and stage productions. "I like watching things and stealing ideas and also thinking, 'Oh, wow. I have to avoid that!' So, I learned from other productions, [but] a week or two into rehearsals you forget and start doing your own thing."

At the same time, Leonard believes that Williams, who died in 1983, "would be horrified to know I even read the biography. I think he'd want me to stay away from his life as much as I could. The play is its own universe. There's a heightened quality to it. It's not a documentary, and I think he'd want me to find my own way."

"The Glass Menagerie" is, as Tom says in his opening speech, "a memory play." Told in flashback and narrated by Tom (Williams' given name), the play is set in a St. Louis tenement where Tom lives with his domineering mother and his physically and mentally infirm sister.

This is the second time Center Stage has produced "The Glass Menagerie"; the first was on North Avenue in 1970. And though the cast and creative team are new, Pamela Payton-Wright, who is playing the mother, is a veteran of two other "Menageries." She first played the mother when she was a student at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, then played the daughter opposite Maureen Stapleton on Broadway in 1975.

Director Vasen, however, like Leonard, has never worked on the play before. Coming to it fresh, the director -- who made his Center Stage debut directing "Open Admissions" last season -- has added some theatrical business to the opening.

To establish the mood for Tom's reminiscences, Leonard's character makes his entrance through the audience in Center Stage's Head Theater, then gradually removes the sheets covering the furniture in designer Tony Straiges' set.

The gesture, Vasen explains, is intended to "serve two functions -- one is that he's setting the stage for the audience and also he's setting the stage for himself. He's conjuring up his own memories, literally unveiling his past."

Devices like this are what lead Leonard to praise "The Glass Menagerie's" strengths as a stage play and to discount the various film versions. It's a work, he feels, that "requires something happening right in front of you."

Leonard's bias toward the stage is reflected in his involvement with the Malaparte Theater Company, a small New York troupe he co-founded about five years ago with a group of friends, including fellow "Dead Poets" alum Hawke.

"We would be sitting around New York a lot," Leonard explains, "and we bowled a lot, and eventually we thought, 'When we're not doing anything, why don't we see if we can put some new plays on?' " Since then, Malaparte has staged three-week runs of nine full productions, for which they've rented theaters and charged $10 admission. "I'm really proud of a lot of what we've done," he says.

Leonard's interest in theater, however, doesn't mean he has neglected films. Three Sundays ago he spent the day in Los Angeles re-shooting a scene for an independent movie called "Prairie Fire," in which he plays a young agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

And on April 20 he will be seen starring in the HBO movie "In the Gloaming," directed by Christopher Reeve. Leonard plays an AIDS patient who returns home to die. His parents are played by Glenn Close and David Strathairn; Whoopi Goldberg plays his nurse.

Leonard's association with Reeve began in 1993 when, together with Reeve, Blair Brown, Harry Hamlin, Michael Tucker and others, he participated in a staged reading of Michael Cristofer's play "The Shadow Box" in Tucson, Ariz. The reading came about after a high-school production of the play about three terminally ill patients was banned and a drama teacher lost her job. Leonard and Reeve portrayed the homosexual couple whose relationship was the crux of the Tucson controversy.

The reading was followed by a televised panel discussion on censorship. "Chris spoke for [the actors]," Leonard says. "It was pretty amazing."

Freedom of expression is something Leonard has always enjoyed, unlike the character he played in his career-making 1989 movie, "Dead Poets Society" -- a prep school student whose theatrical aspirations defy his father's wishes.

In real life, Leonard says his father, a retired Spanish teacher, and mother, a nurse, have been "amazingly supportive" of his acting career. His first taste of theater came in his preteens, when he would accompany his mother to the Ridgewood, N.J., summer-stock company where she painted signs. He started out "running the garbage down to the Dumpsters," but by the time he was 13, he found himself on stage "whenever they needed a kid."

After an agent saw him play the Artful Dodger in "Oliver!" he was hired by the New York Shakespeare Festival as an understudy. He made his Broadway debut replacing the lead in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," a job whose demands caused him to drop out %% of high school in his junior year.

Leonard later got his high school equivalency and has taken courses at Fordham University, but he has never studied acting. On the subject of formal training, he quotes the advice he once received from seasoned actor George Grizzard: "If you're not working, acting class is great. If you're working -- work."

As it has happened, Leonard has worked not only steadily but also for an illustrious roster of film directors, including Kenneth Branagh, James Ivory, Martin Scorsese and Peter Weir.

Leonard says he admires directors who are "strong enough and self-centered enough to stick by their vision, but confident enough to listen to the ideas around them."

High on his list is Branagh, whom Leonard met when the British actor and director played an uncredited role in Leonard's starring vehicle, "Swing Kids" (a coming-of-age movie set in Nazi Germany that Leonard admits turned out to be "terrible").

Branagh was only on the set for one week, but he was about to make "Much Ado About Nothing," and Leonard describes himself as "pretty shameless" in pursuing the role of Claudio. "I prepared this campaign. I laid it on when I met him," he says. "When he left there was a package in my mailbox with the script [and a note that] said, 'Read it over. I'll see you on the set.' "

After a dozen movies, Leonard still prefers theater, and he also finds it easier. "I like the life of plays -- going home at night. It's more sane. You usually lay your head on your own pillow," he explains. "Movies are more difficult. They're more about fatigue and traveling and packing and staying in hotels and press people calling you."

And indeed, Leonard does seem to be enjoying himself. "It feels much more fun now than ever since I know what I'm doing now," he says modestly. "I'm beginning to see the craft behind it. It's really fun when you know what you're doing."

A menagerie of 'Menageries'

Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" is such a familiar and frequently produced work that Tim Vasen, director of the new production at Center Stage, calls it "the American 'Hamlet.' "

"It is a play that's entered our culture and our consciousness so that even if you haven't actually seen it, you have a preconceived idea of what it is, in the same way that anybody can quote 'To be or not to be' without really knowing how it works in that play," Vasen explains.

Twelve regional theaters scheduled "The Glass Menagerie" this season, including Center Stage and the Olney Theatre Center, where it will be produced in October. Charlotte Stoudt, production dramaturg at Center Stage, believes that much of the play's appeal lies in the universality of the family it depicts.

"I think there is probably no one on earth who could not find themselves -- I defy anyone not to find themselves -- in this play," Stoudt says. "They do it in the Philippines. They do it in Japan. It seems to have no cultural boundaries."

Center Stage also produced "The Glass Menagerie" in 1970 at its North Avenue theater, where it was staged by managing director Peter W. Culman and starred popular local actress Vivienne Shub. And Baltimore's Arena Players has staged two African-American versions, one in 1957 and another 10 years later.

This familial drama, which catapulted Williams to fame, premiered in Chicago Dec. 26, 1944, starring Laurette Taylor as matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Despite rave reviews, audiences initially stayed away, and the show was saved largely by the efforts of local critics, who kept it alive in their columns. On March 31, 1945, "The Glass Menagerie" opened at New York's Playhouse Theatre and was greeted by two dozen curtain calls.

Since then, "The Glass Menagerie" has had many revivals. Among the more memorable were:

1956 (Broadway), starring Helen Hayes

1975 (Broadway), starring Maureen Stapleton. The role of the daughter, Laura, was played by Pamela Payton-Wright, currently playing the mother at Center Stage.

1983 (Broadway), starring Jessica Tandy as the mother, Bruce Davison and Amanda Plummer as her children, and John Heard as the Gentleman Caller. This production played an exclusive pre-Broadway engagement at the Mechanic Theatre.

1989 (Washington's Arena Stage), an African-American cast ,X starring Ruby Dee.

1994 (off-Broadway), a short spoof version, "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls," by Christopher Durang. In it, daughter Laura becomes a son named Lawrence who collects glass swizzle sticks. (This version was produced locally at AXIS Theatre last month.)

1995 (Broadway), starring Julie Harris

The play has been filmed repeatedly, beginning with a 1950 version starring Gertrude Lawrence, Jane Wyman and Arthur Kennedy as the Wingfield family, and Kirk Douglas as the Gentleman Caller.

There have also been several TV versions, including:

1966 (CBS), starring Shirley Booth and Hal Holbrook as mother and son.

1973 (ABC), starring Katharine Hepburn in her television debut, with Sam Waterston as her son and Michael Moriarty as the Gentleman Caller.

1987 (CBS), starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman. John Malkovich won an Emmy for his portrayal of the son.

'Menagerie'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, and 1 p.m. March 26 and April 23. Through April 27

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: 410-481-6500

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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