A Snowy Morning with a Tennessee Williams Woman

“It is so extraordinary out there,” actress Madeleine Potter said Saturday morning after walking her dog, an English springer spaniel, in the downtown area around the Lansburgh. The apartment building is her home-away-from-home while starring as Amanda Wingfield in the Ford’s Theatre production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” running through Feb. 21. “You can’t even see the monuments. What an amazing experience!”

Along with making our city even whiter, the blizzard of 2016 caused the cancellation of last weekend’s preview performances, and perhaps others. “We shall see,” Potter said. “Everything’s in flux.”

Potter’s appearance in “The Glass Menagerie” is her first in Washington in a long time. It’s also her first embrace of a major Tennessee Williams role in a career that has notably included four appearances in films directed by James Ivory, the partner of producer Ismail Merchant in Merchant Ivory Productions, famed for lush and literary period pieces.

“It’s a challenge to be doing this, but it’s also exciting. It’s new to me,” Potter said. “To me, Tennessee Williams is one of the giants among the world’s playwrights. He writes especially haunting and strong women characters — strong in the sense that they survive the assaults of the world. I think Amanda is one of those women.” She continued: “I gather Amanda bears some close resemblance to his [Williams’s] mother, but also to him. She is after all a single mother in a time when this was rare and unusual and took even more courage to do. What’s really fascinating to me is her … insane fortitude.”

Listening to the slightly English-accented Potter — the daughter of an American diplomat and OSS officer named Philip B.K. Potter and his wife, the former Madeleine Mulqueen Daly — talk about theater, literature, her family and her life in the theater, you get the sense of a woman with a strong affinity for WiIliams’s women.

“You have a feeling for these women — Amanda, Blanche DuBois, the actress Alexandra Del Lago in ‘Sweet Bird of Youth,’ Alma from ‘Summer and Smoke,’” she said. “This is my first, but I certainly want to do more.”

Of Potter’s four Ivory films, two were based on Henry James novels: “The Bostonians” with Vanessa Redgrave, in which she played Verena Tarrant, and “The Golden Bowl.” The others were the remarkably electric and contemporary “Slaves of New York” and, in 2005, the opulent “The White Countess.” “Ivory’s work was so detailed, so rich, and working on this last film was a beautiful experience for me, because I had a chance to work with my daughter, who played my niece.”

“You may have noticed,” she paused to note, “all the women in my family are named Madeleine going way back.” This includes her daughter, Madeleine Daly.

On stage, Potter has performed both contemporary and classical roles, especially in plays by Ibsen and Shakespeare. “You approach things this way: all classical plays should be treated as if they were brand-new and all new plays should be treated as if they were classics.”

“I did work here once at the Folger,” she recalled, “a production of ‘Hamlet’ directed by Lindsay Anderson.” Suddenly it came back to me. She was Ophelia, a part often underdone or overdone, but, in her case, very affecting. A tough Post critic of the time (1985) said her Ophelia “was mad, but poignantly so.”

“It was such a pleasure to work with Lindsay, he was a genius,” she said. Anderson, who died in 1994, directed Malcolm McDowell in the highly regarded film “if….” (part of a trilogy), wrote a well-received book on John Ford and appeared in “Chariots of Fire.” His “Hamlet” worked like a house on fire by starting the play at its end, on a stage littered with bodies.

She knows that her performance in “The Glass Menagerie” will receive attention. In the world of Tennessee Williams, there haves been many Amandas, many Maggies, many Blanches. The playwright — whose birthday is March 26 and whose death will be commemorated on Feb. 25 — is enjoying a mini-vogue this spring. In addition to “The Glass Menagerie,” there’s are upcoming productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda (March 30 to April 24) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore (April 6 to June 12).

You can see some of the affinity on a personal level for Potter. The play is about a mother-daughter relationship, to be sure, but it’s also about the love between a brother and a sister. “I had three brothers in my family,” she said. “Phil, Paul and Alan. Paul was an actor and a brilliant designer, and he worked here for a time in the 1970s.” It’s plain from the tone of her voice that she and Paul were close. “He was a remarkably gifted artist and a wonderful brother and friend.” Paul Gerard Daly Potter passed away last year. He worked at New Playwrights and at the late Bart Whiteman’s Source Theatre on a gritty 14th Street in the 1970s.

“The thing about Tennessee Williams,” Potter said, “was he imbued every play, everything he did, with poetry. His writing was lyrical and poetic, and my hope is that we never lose this kind of poetic language, our poetry.”

And so, a snowy morning in a shut-down city becomes filled with talk about the Irish and their qualities, about dogs and occasions, scenes from a long ago “Hamlet,” hey, nanny, nanny, about family and friends and performances done, seen and held in the heart’s eye and memory. A fine morning of theater, you might say.


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