Model Role Actor: He's got a list of movie and Broadway credits. Now, Robert Sean Leonard is adding Baltimore's Center Stage to his resume.

March 16, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

He casually drops the names of Ethan Hawke and Chris Reeve and Keanu and Winona. And though his movie-star good looks -- mahogany-colored hair drooping just so above his deep-set eyes -- might lead you to expect a movie-star attitude, what strikes you about actor Robert Sean Leonard is how serious and self-effacing he is.

Maybe this is why Leonard hasn't done many interviews. It's certainly why he hates having his picture taken, submitting to the process as if it were an inoculation, then apologizing for his reluctance.

Still, once he gets started, he has lots to say about Center Stage's production of "The Glass Menagerie," in which he's portraying playwright Tennessee Williams' alter ego, Tom; about the theater company he and some of his famous young friends founded in New York; and about why a nationally recognized actor, with such Broadway credits as Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" and a Tony nomination for "Candida," and such movie credits as "Dead Poets Society" and "Much Ado About Nothing," has come to a regional theater in Baltimore.

The role of Tom in Williams' largely autobiographical 1944 drama is one that 28-year-old Leonard says he's always yearned to play. "You have lists in your head of plays you want to do in each decade," he explains. "This is something I wanted to do before I was 30."

He was so eager that he approached Center Stage. Tim Vasen, who is directing "The Glass Menagerie," recalls, "As soon as I heard he was interested, I just thought he was a perfect match."

Vasen admits he was a bit surprised that an actor with Leonard's national profile was interested in coming to Baltimore. "But what I already knew about Robert was that stage work is very important to him, and he wants to play the great roles and you have to go out of town sometimes to do that," the director says.

Acknowledging a preference for greasepaint over klieg lights, Leonard points out that compared to his friends "Ethan, Winona, Keanu I've done only a few movies." But he recognizes "what [movies] can do for an actor. It's great to have somebody in the theater say, 'I know him. He'd be great in this show.' "

Although Leonard punctuates an interview with light-hearted impersonations and accents, he comes across as thoughtful and bright -- qualities that also impressed Vasen when he and Leonard had their first long conversation about "The Glass Menagerie" in New York. "He struck me as being a smart and hard-working actor," Vasen says. "He works really, really hard to get it right, questions all of his own and other people's assumptions and goes for the tough stuff."

For "The Glass Menagerie," Leonard read Lyle Leverich's acclaimed 600-page 1995 biography, "Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams," as well as parts of Williams' memoirs and many of his short stories and plays. He even listened to recordings made by the playwright. (One of Leonard's best impersonations is of Williams' soft drawling voice, tinged with the cadences of New Orleans, a city that was close to the playwright's heart.)

This is Leonard's first Williams' play, but he has seen his share of "Menagerie" movies and stage productions. "I like watching things and stealing ideas and also thinking, 'Oh, wow. I have to avoid that!' So, I learned from other productions, [but] a week or two into rehearsals you forget and start doing your own thing."

At the same time, Leonard believes that Williams, who died in 1983, "would be horrified to know I even read the biography. I think he'd want me to stay away from his life as much as I could. The play is its own universe. There's a heightened quality to it. It's not a documentary, and I think he'd want me to find my own way."

"The Glass Menagerie" is, as Tom says in his opening speech, "a memory play." Told in flashback and narrated by Tom (Williams' given name), the play is set in a St. Louis tenement where Tom lives with his domineering mother and his physically and mentally infirm sister.

This is the second time Center Stage has produced "The Glass Menagerie"; the first was on North Avenue in 1970. And though the cast and creative team are new, Pamela Payton-Wright, who is playing the mother, is a veteran of two other "Menageries." She first played the mother when she was a student at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, then played the daughter opposite Maureen Stapleton on Broadway in 1975.

Director Vasen, however, like Leonard, has never worked on the play before. Coming to it fresh, the director -- who made his Center Stage debut directing "Open Admissions" last season -- has added some theatrical business to the opening.

To establish the mood for Tom's reminiscences, Leonard's character makes his entrance through the audience in Center Stage's Head Theater, then gradually removes the sheets covering the furniture in designer Tony Straiges' set.

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