Ann Casey as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie? What, have they thrown in some musical numbers we didn't know about?
That's what some in the theater community might have been thinking when Perry Martin cast the musical theater vet in his production of the classic, staged as part of this week's Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.
Casey's clearly made a name for herself with her pipes, as evidenced by her Big Easy Entertainment Award for Best Actress in a Musical in Le Petit's production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 2001 and her recent nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for Le Petit's revival last year of Hello, Dolly! But ... Amanda Wingfield? The domineering yet wistful single mother of directionless Tom and fragile Laura?
"Ann came in to read, and I almost blew her off, ashamedly, simply because of her reputation with musical theater," confesses Martin, whose candor knows few limits. "But there were a couple things about her. Now, everybody talks about directors pre-casting their shows, and then when auditions are held, people expect to be cast. Ann showed up, she worked her ass off, she made me giggle, and she made me freak out a little bit when she got intense. She's one of those musical theater actresses who's dying to do drama.
"Everybody else gave me bad Blanche DuBois," he adds.
That's how Martin seems to operate, going with his gut, sparing little time for egos and casting how he feels. Casey's but one example; Justin Scalise, who has been capable in ensemble pieces such as one of last year's Williams offerings, Small Craft Warnings, doesn't exactly scream "leading male" yet. So casting him as Tom looked like another risk. Martin had just missed out on Ryan Reinike, a more likely candidate, who was unavailable for the initial auditions for Tom due to schedule conflicts. Martin gave the role to Scalise, with Reinike returning in time to land the role of the gentleman caller.
Martin faces the same problem every other director faces in this town: a bizarre, severe shortage of quality, young male leads. He might have found his diamond in the rough in Scalise. "Justin works a lot, but I don't know if he's been truly directed," says Martin. "But I'm getting a lot of subtleties out of Justin. I always see a pissed-off Tom onstage, kind of edgy, and Justin brings to the table a sweet but frustrated and trapped Tom. And I really like that about him. I still saw the love of the family even though there's a lot of turmoil there."
Martin thinks he's found another gem in New Orleanian Soline McLain, who grew up onstage here before moving to New York City to pursue an acting career there. The daughter of costume designer Trish McLain, Soline -- cast as Laura -- "was really the only one I cast who just walked off the page. She's a beautiful young lady but has eyes that could just break your heart. She's so sincere without trying to be."
Though like almost everyone else a fan of Williams' work, Martin says he's grown tired of what he believes is an all too somber rendering of some of the playwright's works -- notably The Glass Menagerie. (That the play is being mounted at all this year is a bit of mystery considering it was staged three years ago, but the play's 60th anniversary provides a nice hook.)
"I've seen this play so many times, and it's just been filled with depression," says Martin, whose most recent Williams production was 2001's Tiger Tail. "There were some where I wanted to cut my wrists. Deep down inside Tennessee was mama's boy. In this production, you're going to see a lot more function so that when you see the dysfunction it's really like a wake-up call. I think there will be some more levels."
Martin has enjoyed some bonus levels offstage. He recently ran into Williams historian Kenneth Holditch, who offered some words of advice. And then Martin ran into Victor Campbell, a former personal assistant and companion to Williams during the 1970s. Campbell recently moved to New Orleans and plans to write a memoir about his experiences with Williams, who provided him with tons of memorabilia that has served as an inspiration to the cast.
"We got a lot of insights into how Tennessee Williams and his family worked, so we can look at the play and see how it was written," Martin says. "Victor explained how the gentleman caller came to be and why the mother referred to men like that.
"We found some original scripts. Just to pull out the suitcase and go through it in front of the cast ... we just took an hour off and sat down and picked his brain, went through the personal letters. It was almost like touching Tennessee Williams himself. (The production has) been energized ever since that."
- "She's one of those musical theater actresses who's dying to do drama," director Perry Martin says of Ann Casey (left), as Amanda Winfield opposite Soline McLain as Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.