Tennessee Williams: The Thin Ice of Human Dignity

Mona Lee Fultz and Nicolas Surovy were mother and son in this 1974 fourth-year production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. The current fourth-years will present five short plays by Williams starting on February 13.

 (Photo by Juilliard Archives)

Drama’s fourth-year rep season, which runs February 13-24, includes five one-act plays by Tennessee Williams. To commemorate the return of Williams to the Juilliard stage—the last production of his work here was Suddenly, Last Summer in 2006; the first was Nobody’s Kid Don’t Cry in 1970—The Journal asked some Drama alums about their Williams experiences at Juilliard and elsewhere. The five plays that will be presented this year (on February 13, 16, 17, 21, and 24) are At Liberty, Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, The Lady of Larkspur Lotion, Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, and The Pretty Trap. Rounding out this year’s rep cycle are Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and Shakespeare’s Pericles. If you want to share your own Williams memories, let us know: journal@juilliard.edu.

This 1985 Group 14 production of Williams’s Night of the Iguana featured (from left) Juliet Pritner, John Cutler, and Michel Gill.

(Photo by Jessica Katz)

Ben Rappaport portrayed Dr. Cukrowicz in the Group 37 production of Suddenly Last Summer, in 2006.

(Photo by jessica Katz)


Mona Lee Fultz (Group 3) played the mother, Amanda Wingfield, in the fourth-year production of The Glass Menagerie, in 1974. The owner of an acting studio in Austin, Tex., since 1980, she is in the upcoming feature film The Teller and the Truth.

I had been doing a great job of portraying Amanda in our small rehearsal room. About four days before our move into the theater for tech, Boris Tumarin (faculty 1970-79), my favorite director at the School, starting asking me to bump up the volume, [but] every time I would try to project the character’s voice, I would lose her organically. Boris pushed and pushed. Finally we had a huge showdown and I threw a crying fit. Dear, sweet, Boris let me get all my fears out. An actor needs to be able to have absolute trust in their director. Boris understood that. He said I would be able to make the transition and not to worry. After that, we moved into the theater and the new, bigger Amanda emerged to everyone’s satisfaction.

An opening-night memory: I come out on stage in Scene One, and my foot catches a table lamp cord and the lamp falls and breaks. Inside me, everything goes into slow mo. I can’t remember my lines. Nicolas Surovy, who is playing Tom, is frozen in shock. In my head, my internal critic is screaming, “You should never have gotten into acting. Terrible, terrible person.” And, then this other voice, one I [now] call the witness voice, stated the facts in the calmest way. “Yes, you kicked over the lamp and it is broken on the floor. You don’t remember your lines. Yes, the audience is watching this happening. Nicolas looks shocked, but now he is walking toward you and he seems to be remembering his lines now. Go to the lamp and pick it up. Maybe this could really annoy Amanda, and she could blame it on her son. Nicolas is picking up the lamp. Maybe you could help. Now you are remembering your lines.” This was the first time I saw I had the obvious choice to listen to the critic or the witness, and I chose the witness, which was a great victory for me.

Caitlin O’Heaney (then Kathleen Heaney) portrayed Esmerelda in a Group 3 rehearsal exercise of Camino Real. She is currently an actress-singer-songwriter based in New York City and the Hudson Valley.

For certain the most fun aspect of playing Esmerelda was being directed by the wonderful Marion Seldes (faculty 1969-92), but I would jump at the chance to play any female Williams character. Why? Because Williams, like Chekhov and Shakespeare, creates multilayered personalities that often are morally contradictory, and I find the challenge of analyzing these women and arriving at logical motivations for their sometimes illogical behavior to be exhilarating. The playwright’s job is to hold a mirror up to nature—otherwise known as “truth”—and Tennessee Williams accomplishes this with eloquence.

Frederick “Fritz” Sperberg (Group 5), who now lives and works in Los Angeles, played Jack Hunter in the 1976 production of The Rose Tattoo.

The summer before The Rose Tattoo, I’d helped make ends meet by working as a carpenter in the Juilliard Scene Shop and spent many hours, after work, exploring the acoustics of the “big” theater, seeking that special spot, down center—just in front of the proscenium—where a whisper could be audible in the back row of the balcony. In The Rose Tatooo, the only production we did in the theater, every time I walked on that stage, I remembered how intimate the space could be and I know it helped me deliver a relaxed and confident performance.

Another Williams memory: after we graduated, Danny Tamm (also Group 5) auditioned for Williams’s autobiographical play Vieux Carre, and Williams himself had attended Danny’s reading. When the time came, [Williams] pulled the scene—a typed original, not a Xerox copy—from his briefcase. Afterward, I remember Gale Pike (who played Rosa in our production) and I were with Danny, and just holding those pages and thinking of all the great scenes that had come from Williams and that typewriter made me feel like I was holding a precious relic. I hope Danny held on to them!

Juliet Pritner (Group 14) played Hannah Jelkes in the fourth-year production of Night of the Iguana, in March 1985. She switched her focus from theater to television 10 years ago with the birth of her son, and currently has a recurring role as conservative pundit Marie Byron on the Onion News Network and an array of TV roles with “a suspicious bent toward law enforcement.”

Working on Night of the Iguana at Juilliard was a magical confluence for me as an actress. The opportunity to play Hannah Jelkes under the gentle direction of John Stix (faculty 1974-2004) in a company of actors I respected, trusted, and with whom I had shared so much, was revelatory.

It was under John’s care that we (and generations of first-year acting students) had begun the process of unlearning. Dressed neck-to-toe in black nylon (it was 1981), we sat in chairs scattered around Room 301(?) and learned to smell the coffee, to feel the warmth of the sunshine on our faces, to forget what we knew, and to invest in a new reality. A bag of tricks filled with simple moments of truth and triggers, which would build the foundation for a new way of thinking and of working. Hannah’s arc is heartbreaking and daunting when viewed as a whole. With John at the helm, the epic journey became a series of simple, logical, authentic moments, which taken together led to an absolute and inevitable conclusion.

I fell in love with Tennessee Williams the summer I was about 10, and I played a No Neck Monster [one of the bratty children] in an Illinois State University production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with Rondi Reed as Big Mama and Gary Cole as Brick. The language of that play seeped into my spirit, and I began to understand his gift for conjuring a symphony on stage—a symphony of musical language and human suffering. Years later I had the chance to play Sister Woman [Mae]. I would leap at the opportunity to complete the circle someday as Big Mama.

Michel Gill (Group 14) took the role of Reverend Shannon in the fourth-year production of Night of the Iguana in March 1985. On February 1, Gill debuts in his latest role, as the President of the U.S., in the new Netflix series House of Cards, which stars Kevin Spacey (Group 12) as the majority whip scheming for the president’s job.

My first memory about the play is that the director, John Stix, made us audition for our parts in Night of the Iguana and sweat it out a few days until he finished casting the entire show. By doing this, he created an intense professional environment that helped us all understand the realities we would face after graduation. The men of Group 14 went all out in preparing for Rev. Shannon. It was a fierce competition and it taught me an invaluable lesson: whether you get the part or not, all you can do—must do—is be prepared; only then can you accept defeat as graciously as victory. (That time I won the role of Rev. Shannon—but it helped for the tougher times that lay ahead.)

The second thing I recall vividly, is sitting down with Stix a year after the show. We talked about the experience, and we both came to the conclusion that we had completely forgotten to infuse humor in the damn production!

Williams rates amongst the greatest of playwrights. His characters are real and multifaceted, and he exposes their strengths and weaknesses. As an audience, our emotions range from frustration to anger and from passion to maybe even disgust, weaving the inevitable and necessary stitchings of humor and grandiosity while skating on the thin ice of human dignity. In the end, we feel compassion. What more can we ask of our playwrights?

Ben Rappaport (Group 37) played Dr. Cukrowicz in the December 2006 third-year production of Suddenly, Last Summer, which was directed by Sam Gold (Directing ’06). Rappaport is currently performing in the Broadway revival William Inge’s Picnic at the Roundabout in a production also directed by Gold.

What really stands out to me about this particular role was the lack of language Williams gives Dr. Cukrowicz: he spends most of the play listening and being a sounding board to the other characters. The challenge in playing him is making the listening active and having a very specific point of view so he doesn’t become too neutral.

My least favorite memory was the frustration of living in the skin of this character that didn’t have a lot of text to express his feelings. It was up to me to do the heavy lifting with the subtext and point of view. I can’t be too mad at [Williams] though. I’m a far better actor now for it, and I think every actor should have experience with his work as part of his or her training and growth.

I would jump at the chance to do another Williams play. For me, he is in a category like Shakespeare. All of the greatest actors have tried their hand with his material, and no matter how many times the plays are revived, there are a million ways to put your own stamp on it. Coming from a place like Juilliard, I have a deep love for epic poetic language. Williams’s work is bursting with it and I’m always up for a challenge and trying to deepen my craft.

Cara Cook Ludwig (Group 37) played Sister Felicity in the 2006 Suddenly, Last Summer. She is the director of theater education at the Texas Elementary School for the Arts in Fort Worth.

The minimalist approach Sam Gold used in our production of Suddenly, Last Summer was halting and abrupt in contrast to the beauty one would imagine as they read Williams’s description of the ornate and dense garden setting. The combination of humidity and tension between the characters onstage was electric. Some of the best moments of that show were those unspoken.

As a writer, Tennessee Williams is tied as my favorite. I came to Juilliard just in love with Texan writer Horton Foote, and once I studied Williams with Michael Kahn [Drama Division artistic director, 1992-2006] it was like a lightbulb came on for me. Williams’s style of writing and his richly developed characters make his plays infectious. I can’t put one down while I’m in his world.

I would jump at the chance to play any of Williams’s women—as long as I had a few months post-show to recoup emotionally. What beautifully tragic and flawed angels he writes about! This indulgent, dark exploration of humanity and weakness and the struggle to rise from it is absolutely seductive.


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