Southern-bred actress Tracy Middendorf has successfully played a variety of roles, but her innate qualities of intelligence, Dixie grace, and vulnerability give her a special affinity for the tragi-comic women characters who inhabit the ethereal Tennessee Williams terrain. Middendorf is currently breaking audiences' hearts with her shattering performance as the Mississippi preacher's repressed daughter Alma in the Fountain Theatre's exquisite production of Williams' classic Summer and Smoke.
In a recent interview at a Hollywood cafe, Middendorf told Back Stage West, "I'd love to do all of the Williams plays. I know Blanche is there waiting for me. I've heard it said that Laura (The Glass Menagerie) turns into Alma, who turns into Blanche (A Streetcar Named Desire)." This sounds like a tantalizing prospect, but connoisseurs of fine acting can be grateful that the soulful actress behind the fluttery mannerisms is the extraordinary Middendorf.
This is the second Williams play Middendorf has done at the Fountain. In the 1996 production of Orpheus Descending, also helmed by Summer's director Simon Levy, she eloquently played the aristocratic but delicate Carol Cutrere. Middendorf added, "Most of Tennessee Williams' female characters are more alike than different. They are fragile and have difficulty living in a harsh world. Although Carol understood herself better than Alma did, she was just as desperate." In the ill-fated romance that drives Summer and Smoke, the hedonistic Dr. John Buchanan Jr. (superbly played by Middendorf's off-stage boyfriend Cameron Dye) is drawn to the spiritual purity of the sensitive Alma, while Alma is drawn to Buchanan's earthiness and lusty spirit, leading to a bittersweet but inevitable catharsis.
Middendorf's multi-layered performance in Summer and Smoke is special because she triumphantly surmounts her character's fears to capture the affected speech and nervous mannerisms that Alma uses to mask her insecurities and secret yearnings, while gracing the role with profound sadness. It wasn't surprising when Middendorf described a recent performance in which a woman in the front row-only a few feet away from her-began sobbing loudly during the play's heartbreaking final moments.
Middendorf's resum includes another juicy role at the Fountain, that of Nicole, the glamorous Zelda Fitzgerald persona, in a stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. Last year, she appeared in the Lincoln Center production of Eugene O'Neill's Ah! Wilderness, playing the 15-year-old sweetheart, which she described as "not a big challenge, but still gratifying and a great way to slip into Broadway." That was followed by the role of Della in the Joanne Woodward-directed production of Clifford Odets' The Big Knife at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
She has appeared in such films as Wes Craven's New Nightmare and guested on such television series as Chicago Hope and Touched by an Angel. She also had the lead in a HBO film, Perversions of Science.
Middendorf has not begun looking for her next project yet. She explained, "With a role this all-consuming, I can't really put my energies into anything else. But I feel like I'm a bit out of the 'Tennessee mud' now that the play has opened and the people that the theatres always seem to worry about-[the critics]-have already attended. In L.A., there is so much theatre to choose from, if you get a bad review, nobody comes."
One need only pick up any local publication to see that the efforts of Middendorf have emerged from the Tennessee mud without a smudge.