Outgoing actress looks inside to find 'Menagerie' misfit

Jennifer Dundas is no shrinking violet.

The New York actress, who will play the painfully shy Laura Wingfield alongside Sally Field in The Glass Menagerie in the Kennedy Center's "Tennessee Williams Explored" series, is outwardly nothing like the character she is set to portray. Dundas is full of life. When she laughs during a phone interview, you can almost hear the smile in her voice.


So imagine her surprise when, upon winning the part, a friend exclaimed, "'Oh my god, that's perfect for you, you were made to play that part!'" Dundas, who has extensive experience on Broadway and off and who starred in Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and in Swimming with Lauren Ambrose, says she was flattered but thought, "[Laura] is just sort of this obscenely shy, emotionally delayed, social outcast. Why am I so perfect for this part?"

After working on the play, however, Dundas realized that there was something elemental and recognizable about Laura, a girl who is crippled emotionally and physically and lives in a dream world with her overbearing mother. Laura interacts comfortably only with her collection of glass animal figurines.


"I connect so deeply with this character," the 33-year-old Bostonian says. "And it just has to do with going a little further back to my childhood and connecting with these very primal anxieties and fears that really are in the forefront of Laura's functioning. I think that's why people can connect with Tennessee Williams' characters so well. It's that they are extremes of emotions that everyone can identify with, and they're drawn so beautifully and poetically that you just can't help but be in awe of the drama."

The Glass Menagerie, the semi-autobiographical play that made Williams an overnight phenomenon in 1945, tells the story of faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Field), her son Tom (Jason Butler Harner) and her daughter Laura (Dundas), who all live in a cramped St. Louis apartment, struggling to make ends meet and to maintain a facade of normality in the wake of their father's absence. When a gentleman named Jim (Corey Brill) comes to call, the Wingfield family focuses its hopes on frail Laura.

As part of the preparation for her role, Dundas, who says she has always been a Williams fan, read Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams, a biography of Williams. She learned that the characters in the play were closely based on Williams' own mother, father and sister.

"Knowing how closely these characters are based on the real people, you're more inspired to honor them truthfully," says Dundas. "They're dead, but they were alive, and they're out there somewhere, and I have to do well by them."

To add to her realistic portrayal of the vulnerable Laura, Dundas speaks with a Southern accent, wears a leg brace and plays with fragile glass figurines, one of which she must break in the course of the play. Yet the biggest hazard for the Laura Wingfield character isn't broken glass; it's her mother.

But Field, unlike her famously domineering character, is a nurturer. "She's really a mom, very naturally a mom. She's not much of an Amanda Wingfield in life," says Dundas, who adds that Field's interpretation of Amanda doesn't vilify the character often described as a harridan and a harpy, but instead takes a very empathetic angle. "She really makes her into a real person," says Dundas.

So what lessons has Dundas learned from the mother in Field? "[Sally] works so hard," says Dundas, "and I've learned that at no point is it OK to be lazy as an actor, no matter how successful or how good you are. At no point do you stop working at 100 percent. It takes a lot of courage to work that hard."

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The Glass Menagerie

When: Tonight through Aug. 8. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington

Tickets: $25-$75

Box office and information: 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600