BWW Interview: Remy Auberjonois of THE GLASS MENAGERIE at Guthrie Theater
Memory is a tricky thing. One person's memories are not necessarily going to match another's of the same event. Sometimes they evolve as time passes. Sometimes you forget all but the most important moments -- or the least.
I've seen this play a number of times over the many years of theatre-going and being a theatre student myself many years ago, but it's the first time in years, so it felt like a renewed show for me. Still, age, time and a mind filled with too many important and unimportant facts and probably other factors lead me to remember the lead character, Tom Wingfield, always being performed by a young man, as he would've looked when the events of the show play out. (Likely also a factor is school and community productions employing all younger actors.)
Actor Remy Auberjonois is playing Tom at the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust stage this month. When asked about the age of his character he shared that people (including this writer) clearly are reading something into the play that is not there. His points are well taken. For me, it's likely a combination of hazy memories of past productions and assumptions based on those. But read on to see his answer, because thinking on this show again, he's so right and there's something much deeper that comes from when Tom is played by a man who's older and is looking back on his life -- or what he remembers of it.
THE GLASS MENAGERIE is a "poetic memory play" by Tennessee Williams (who's photo, by the way, is permanently ensconced on the outer wall of the Guthrie's riverfront complex along with several other important figures in the life of the theater) and has been performed at the Guthrie Theater multiple times in the history of the company, but it's the first time ever for director Joseph Haj and several members of this year's cast. Auberjonois shares his insights from the work he's doing on this production in this 6 Questions & a Plug.
This play is a memory of your character, Tom, and you are a bit older than the usual casting of Tom. There's a line about Laura being two years older than Tom; clearly Laura is a much younger person. Was casting a mature Tom who looks back on this memory a unique choice? Did you approach the character differently than you may have if you did it as a younger person?
This has been a recurring theme in the commentary and questions I have received about the role. I think the question itself speaks more generally to the fact that many people have associations with this play that may not be based in the play itself, but rather in their expectations for it. While the version of Tom who is present for the action of the scenes that play out is certainly younger, the narrator of the play is undoubtedly the character of Tom as an indeterminately older man. It was certainly a choice in this production to approach the role as that of an older man looking back in time, and having me as a middle aged actor "inhabit" the memories of my younger self. But I don't think there's anything particularly unusual or unique about the approach. The actor who originated the role and directed the first production, and who one could say very likely had a significant influence in developing the play with Williams as well as the play's initial success, was 10 years older than I am at 55. The most recent Broadway production with Sally Field as Amanda featured Joe Mantello in the role of Tom, I think at the age of 54. So I'm not sure there is anything particularly noteworthy about my being 45 and playing Tom.
I do think that I bring something different to the part than I would were I in my 20s, and I also think it injects the performance with an interesting dynamic between Tom and Amanda. Amanda has essentially enlisted Tom to share responsibility for Laura, more like a partner than a son. The battles between Tom and Amanda could be echoes of the battles between Amanda and her absent husband, who she repeatedly says Tom reminds her of more and more. My profile as a person closer to her age contributes to this in an interesting way, I hope. And as a parent myself, I have a good deal of compassion for Amanda that I might not have had in my own youth.
At a recent talk back, you told an audience member that the key message of this show changes for you each time. Now that you've been doing the show a couple weeks, have you settled on one or does it still shift and change for you, and why?
I find that with any show really. No play has one consistent message, I don't think. I believe a good, complex play generates clusters of associations and meanings that accumulate for the audience. As the performer it is important to be in the moment, not focused on the "message" being conveyed. When I am "in the pocket" and performing a play naturally, truthfully and spontaneously, I deliver different lines and scenes with subtle differences, so it is constantly shifting...within the general structure we developed in rehearsal.
Why do you think this play has remained relevant and meaningful all these years?
The language. The structure. The identifiable human struggles and family dynamics. There is a version of "Americanness" it portrays that many still feel connected to.
What surprises you about this show?
I have been delighted by how humorous it is. I am a bit of a "ham," but I found that with the addition of the audience there was a lot of humor that came out of the play that I hadn't even realized was working in the performances. That has been very gratifying to me. In other shows, I find myself working to make something funny and truthful, but in this play I was playing for dramatic truth and the audience finds it unexpectedly funny. That's been delightful.
Your career has included many television series and film along with an extensive stage credit list... what do you most enjoy about your past roles and what do you still have on your bucket list?
One of my proudest moments was the Mike Nichols' production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN, in which I played Howard opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman. It is just one long pivotal scene at the top of the second act between the two characters and it felt like our own one-act play. Phil asked me early on to try and "surprise" him every time, so there was a gauntlet thrown that I tried to honor in contribution to his journey throughout the play. As for a bucket list, I kind of take them as they come!
You've worked at the Guthrie a number of times now. What do you think stands out the most about working there, as compared to other theaters you've worked in?
The audiences are dedicated and [well-versed in theater], as well as pretty age diverse. The theater is well supported by its donor and subscriber base and there is tremendous capacity in all aspects of production all under one roof. It's really one of the most consistent places I've worked in terms of the level of production value.
Where can audiences spot you next after THE GLASS MENAGERIE?
I have no answer for that one. Being an actor is like swinging through the jungle on vines, you reach out and hope the next one is there so you can keep swinging!
The Glass Menagerie will run through Oct. 27, 2019, on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Regular ticket prices start at $25. Tickets are on sale now through the Box Office at 612.377.2224, 1.877.44.STAGE (toll-free) or online at guthrietheater.org. Post-play discussions and access services (ASL-interpreted, audio-described and open-captioned performances) are available on select dates and by request.
Remy Auberjonois Bio:
GUTHRIE Cyrano de Bergerac, Noises Off, Sense and Sensibility. THEATER Broadway: The Assembled Parties, Death of a Salesman, White Christmas, The Country Girl, Frost/Nixon; Off-Broadway (selected): The Public Theater; Manhattan Theatre Club; Atlantic Theater Company; Ensemble Studio Theatre; HERE; Regional (selected): Williamstown Theatre Festival; McCarter Theatre; Dallas Theater Center; The Old Globe; Hamptons Shakespeare Festival; The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey; Mark Taper Forum. FILM/TELEVISION The English Teacher, Fair Game, The International, Michael Clayton; Director of the Minnesota-made film Blood Stripe (LA Film Festival Award, Provincetown Film Festival Award, Twin Cities Film Festival 2016); More than 35 television series, including "Blindspot" and recurring roles on "Show Me a Hero," "The Good Wife" and "The Americans." TRAINING M.F.A., Yale School of Drama
Headshot of Remy Auberjonois: photo courtesy of the Guthrie Theater
Production photo: Remy Auberjonois (Tom Wingfield) in the Guthrie Theater's production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams and directed by Joseph Haj. Scenic design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, costume design by Raquel Barreto, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, sound design by Darron L West and original music by Jack Herrick. September 14 - October 27, 2019 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis. Photo by T Charles Erickson.