The Craft

When a performance dazzles a reviewer, there's a word that is often pulled from the dog-eared glossary of reviewer terms. It has an infinite resonance; it anoints the actor with a metaphysical or supernatural aura. It is "transcendent." According to the dictionary, transcendent means "surpassing all others; pre-eminent" or, more telling, "above and independent of the material universe." It's a word frequently attached to such theatre legends as Eleonora Duse, Laurette Taylor, and Kim Stanley. Certainly a fortuitous melding of material and actor is needed for it to happen.

Some 60 years ago, for example, Laurette Taylor portrayed Amanda Wingfield in the original production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. In Rick McKay's documentary Broadway: The Golden Age, theatre veterans attempt to describe Taylor's work. But no one was as eloquent as Williams himself, who wrote about Taylor in The New York Times in 1949, three years after her death. He wrote that he sensed in her work "hints of something that lies outside the flesh and its mortality…. There was a radiance about her art which I can compare only to the greatest lines of poetry, and which gave me the same shock of revelation as if the air about us had been momentarily broken through by light from some clear space beyond us." I didn't see Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, but I'm willing to take Williams' word.

Still, if I'm going to talk about transcendent performances, let me lay my own cards on the table. I'm going back into my own history as a young theatregoer in Chicago for these performances—performances with the power to seal into a still-uncluttered mind a lifelong obsession with theatre.

One was David B. Itkin as King Lear at Chicago's Goodman School of Drama, the forerunner of the city's Goodman Theatre. Itkin taught there for some 25 years and was its first faculty member to appear in a student production. The Latvian-born Itkin, who came to the Goodman in 1929, had been a student of Stanislavsky and was a founder of the Habima Players, the group of Jewish actors at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre.

I'm not sure how old I was when I saw his Lear, but I know that when Itkin took the stage, his Russian accent still intact and his Stanislavsky method apparently unlocking something deep in his psyche, the fury of his anger and the pain of his suffering rocked the theatre. As he railed at Cordelia and later at the storm, and finally grieved the death of his youngest daughter, I learned the meaning of that tragic equation of fear and pity.

Equally indelible to me was Shirley Booth in William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba in the early 1950s. Booth, who made her name as a comic character actor, emerged as a modern-day tragedian playing Inge's frowsy, fantasy-ridden Lola, unknowingly chipping at the fragile but rigid exterior of Doc, her recovering-alcoholic husband. When Doc's shell finally crumbles and the terrified but loving Lola becomes the target of his drunken rage, I was overwhelmed with sympathy and anxiety for this hapless slattern. As Booth's Lola came to terms with reality, it was like being present at an exorcism through wrath and the rebirth of a sweet but difficult soul.

Of course, my particular recollections might be dusty, even musty. So, for more-current examples of transcendent performances, I turned to two young theatregoers, both of whom are also busy as directors and serve as artistic directors of their own companies. Musicals were not discussed, as they present another set of circumstances for the performer; film and television, of course, are completely different stories.

Carl Forsman, artistic director of New York City's Keen Company—which is celebrated for its pitch-perfect Off-Broadway revivals of 20th century American and English plays—cites Jim Norton in Conor McPherson's The Weir, which premiered in London and ran on Broadway in 1999. Norton played Jack, one of the drinking cronies telling haunting stories one stormy night in an Irish pub.

"We all give lip service to the importance of vulnerability," says Forsman. "It's something I strive for in my work and [in] the actors I work with. But the way Jim Norton did it was totally beautiful. He was playing a complicated and mature man, but the vulnerability came through so naturally."

Also intensely vivid for him is Mark Rylance's Olivia in Twelfth Night, a production of London's Globe Theatre Forsman saw in Pittsburgh in 2003. His Olivia was "so strong," Forsman recalls. "It was very different from the work I do. He's playing a woman in a period piece, greatly stylized with his white powder makeup and detailed period costumes. But he showed the complexity of the woman, and again, the vulnerability, as well, came through." He adds, "The whole production was unique. It was done in the round with the space brightly lit. It was like seeing a Shakespeare play as Shakespeare himself might have seen it. It was like traveling through time."

Martha Banta, artistic director of the Glens Falls, N.Y.–based Adirondack Theatre Festival and resident director of the musical Mamma Mia! on Broadway and its national tour, doesn't hesitate to cite her own example.

"What really stands out for me are two performances by Elizabeth Marvel, both at New York Theatre Workshop," says Banta. In 1999, Marvel portrayed Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire; last year she assumed the title role in Hedda Gabler. Experimental Flemish director Ivo van Hove helmed both.

"Both productions were very nontraditional, and that's part of why I feel the way I do about them," Banta explains. "I know both of those plays well, but the productions opened them up for me in a completely different way, and Elizabeth Marvel was the one who pulled that off." One particularly striking moment for Banta was when Marvel, as Blanche, dove headfirst into the bathtub that was the central prop in Streetcar.

"She is what I call a visceral actor," says Banta. "She has no fear, in a way that I don't see in any other performer. And nothing is on the surface. Everything seems to come from her very core."

Interestingly, my most out-of-body theatregoing experiences have also come from Streetcar, but in a traditional production—the original, in the play's first national tour.

The show was already a smash, thanks to the electricity of Marlon Brando's Stanley on Broadway, but in Chicago it was Uta Hagen as Blanche who commandeered this Streetcar.

As I recall, the houselights dimmed, the play began, and in a twinkling it was over. All I knew was I had been through a wrenching experience. So it was back to Streetcar weeks later to record, at least mentally, what I had seen.

Hagen was not a small woman, and her speech in private life held a hint of her German roots. As Blanche, she metamorphosed into a delicate Southern belle, desperately trying to hold on to charm and illusion. She seemed little more than a fluttering scrap of chiffon ready to be destroyed, yet equipped with frightening instincts for survival. As she struggled against the animal brutality and sexuality of her brother-in-law, it became a cataclysmic conflict of all that strives for beauty and poetry against the force of primordial darkness.

Much later, I interviewed Hagen in her Washington Square apartment and told her about my Streetcar experience. She accepted the compliment with modest grace. The exchange was surrounded by a nuts-and-bolts conversation about what it takes to inhabit great roles such as Blanche onstage.

Serious actors dedicated to theatre, she said, "can't expect to get rich; you can't expect to get famous. You can hopefully make a statement somewhere along the line."

Then Hagen delivered a credo that still reverberates in my mental notepad: "So then we have to have other rewards. We have to have good colleagues, do the plays we love—and let's do them as well as we can."