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Susan Sullivan Meets Amanda Wingfield

The well-known TV actress tackles The Glass Menagerie at the Pasadena Playhouse. An interview by Anne Louise Bannon. logo
Susan Sullivan, Tony Crane,
Rachel Robinson, and Raphael Sbarge
in The Glass Menagerie
Though best known for her work in television, actress Susan Sullivan is no stage neophyte. Now, after three very successful seasons playing the overbearing Kitty Montgomery on the ABC sitcom Dharma and Greg, she's taking on one of the most treasured roles in American theater: Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, opening May 14 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"It's very stimulating to be doing a piece like this," says Sullivan. "It's so rich and textured. And demanding." While sitcom work makes its own demands, Sullivan agrees that performing on stage requires some very different acting muscles. "It's like running a marathon," she says. "It's as if you've been having appetizers and then, suddenly, you're given a meal. There's a leap of faith."

Sullivan, who was born in New York City, started out doing rep in the Midwest and in Washington, DC. "The genesis of my career was in the theater," she says. After a stint with the National Repertory, she landed a role on Broadway in the play Jimmy Shine, which also featured Dustin Hoffman. Then she starred in The Beauty Part, a play by S.J. Perlman. She began working in television in the mid-1960s, eventually doing four years on the soap opera Another World.

In 1976, Sullivan was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Maggie Porter in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man-Book II. That led her to the short-lived series Having Babies. She continued to appear in television movies and was even seen in the first Star Trek movie. Her next series role was in the comedy It's a Living in 1980. And in 1981, she got the big one: Maggie Channing in the night-time soap Falcon Crest.

Through all of this, and particularly while on Falcon Crest, she was doing stage work as well--most notably a production of Fifth of July at the Mark Taper Forum. Her other stage credits include Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and Mourning Becomes Electra; she also was seen in PBS-TV versions of Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and The Winter's Tale.
Sullivan admits that she was at first a little reluctant to take on Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, mostly because she didn't do Southern women that well. But then she re-read the script and decided that Amanda wasn't such a far cry from her role on Dharma and Greg. "Actually, they're not that dissimilar," she notes with a chuckle. "There is something to taking on a classic that is a little unnerving, but you have to put that out of your mind. Everybody has an idea about Amanda. You just have to say, 'This is what I have to bring to the part.' "

Director Andrew Robinson offered her the role in November, and Sullivan went right to work. "One of the things that I've found is that there's a woman in my life who was the essence of Amanda," she says. "I feel I know who she is. Now, if the show gets killed [in the reviews] and people say, 'What the hell is she doing?'--we'll have to see."

In developing her characterization of Amanda, Sullivan found help from an unusual source. "We're going to use my father's picture on the set as the picture of the father who abandoned the family," she says. "That is so powerful for me, to have that touchstone. Much of the underpinning of Amanda, which is her enormous pain and fear, is connected to that man."

Sullivan touches upon her own unhappy childhood--wondering if the lights would be turned off, if the bills would be paid. But facing all that pain and fear can have its downside, and it's not easy to avoid taking it home with you. "Particularly in the rehearsal process," Sullivan says, "you can't quite leave all of that at the theater. I know; I've been waking up at four o'clock in the morning. I think most of us carry a quiet dread about how dangerous the world is. It's all underneath, and we keep it at bay. What an actor does is to open the door--but you need to be able to push it all back.

"I have a certain amount of fear about all these lines, but I've been able to work around it," says Sullivan, who started rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie with most of her role memorized. (She did drop a word at a recent dress rehearsal, but got through it.) "There is something really terrifying about the potential of going blank. I don't know what you do about it. Do you acknowledge it? The demon is going to be there, but I try to become friends with it."

Another issue has been the need for Sullivan to project her voice without straining it. "When we first started," she says, "I was not relaxed enough, and I was pushing from my throat. So I have to make sure I warm up."

Nerves aside, the actress feels ready for Amanda. "I want to share her sensibility," Sullivan says. "The passion and the joy of acting is that feeling of connectedness to being human. All art, ultimately, is life."

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