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(Courtesy Photo) Teresa Sanderson as Martha and Jared Larkin as George, with Marin Kohler as Honey and Mike Brown as Nick in Pinnacle Acting Company's production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," to be staged in the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts at Westminster College June 12-28.
Teresa Sanderson: Finding the heart of theater’s most vicious character

Profile » Teresa Sanderson streak of choice roles continues as she takes on Edward Albee’s most vicious protagonist.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jun 07 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 13 2014 04:33 pm

After Teresa Sanderson hit the milestone of her 50th birthday, the Utah actor found herself just where she wanted to be — center stage.

First, there was her portrayal of Mama Rose in the classic musical "Gypsy." After a lifetime of performing, the Ogden native had earned the life experience to bring depth and nuance to Mama Rose, the manipulative stage mother considered the "brassy, unlikely answer to ‘King Lear,’ " as one Broadway theater critic put it. In the 2011 Dark Horse Company Theatre production, Sanderson belted "Everything’s Coming Up Roses" as if she were born to the role.

At a glance

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

When » June 12-14, 20-21, 27-28, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, June 28

Where » Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College, 1250 E. 1700 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $15 ($13 students/seniors) $12 matinee; at 801-810-5793, or pinnacleactingcompany.org or at the door; discounts available for groups of 10 or more with advance notice at the box office.

‘August: Osage County’

The Utah premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts will be directed by Mark Fossen, with Teresa Sanderson as Violet Weston. The show is co-produced by Silver Summit Theatre and the Utah Repertory Theater.

When » Aug. 15-31

Where » A new venue, the Downtown/River District Sugar Space, 130 S. 300 West, Salt Lake City

Tickets » On sale in July at silversummittheatre.org or at the door

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Yet as the run of "Gypsy" came to a close, Sanderson worried. "Every single solitary time I close a show, I’m sure I will never get cast again," she says, with what colleagues describe as her trademark blend of generosity and humility.

Then the Ogden native followed Mama Rose with an even more extraordinary turn: Playing a former LDS mother turned transgender man in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s "Eric(a)," produced by Plan-B Theatre Company in 2013.

In the local theater world, she has long been considered one of the city’s best actors, routinely praised for her versatility and work ethic. But with "Eric(a)," "everybody in Salt Lake got let in on the secret," says acting colleague and director Mark Fossen.

This summer, Sanderson is adding two more meaty, complicated roles to her dramatic resume. First up, she’s playing Martha, the vicious, embittered wife in a rare local production of Edward Albee’s fierce, Tony-winning "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’"

In August, she’ll take on Violet, the pill-popping, tough-talking family matriarch in the Utah premiere of Tracy Letts’ darkly comic Pulitzer-prize winning "August: Osage County," the role that recently earned Meryl Streep her record 18th Academy Award nomination.

"I’ve played 80 since I was 12," Sanderson says with a laugh. "I was not an ingenue, and I’ve never been a leading lady. That’s not who I am. I recognized really early that my strength was going to be character work."

And oh my, what character work.

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Why theaters are afraid of ‘Woolf’ » "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has received two recent Broadway revivals, but hasn’t been performed locally for more than 30 years, says director Larry West. One reason is that playwright Edward Albee is particular, requesting set designs and a cast list before granting rights for the play. "To jump through those hoops takes a little bit of time and effort," West says.

Then there are the heft and layers of Albee’s vicious dialogue, which makes the play difficult to cast. It’s also a difficult sell, especially for theatergoers seeking escapist fare in the summertime. And it’s a particularly ambitious choice for the small Pinnacle Acting Company, whose shows usually are staged at the Midvale Performing Arts Center. "Woolf" is Pinnacle’s first show to be produced at Westminster College.

Over the course of three hours, "Woolf" unfolds the twisted marriage of George and Martha, whose disappointments, fueled by escalating levels of alcohol, cause them to aggressively turn on each other in front of a younger couple, Nick and Honey. "At its dysfunctional, messed-up heart, it is a love story," West says. "George and Martha really love each other."

Sanderson adds: "I think it’s easy to make Martha a villain, to make her unlovable, to make people say: ‘No wonder George is the way he is.’ But there’s so much more to her. Every day we peel back another layer, peel back the bone and get to the marrow. It’s crazy fun, and it’s exhausting."

Watching the play feels like attending a party where a couple start arguing. "You’re embarrassed to be there, but you can’t not watch. This play does that to you over and over," West says, adding that rehearsals leave him emotionally devastated.

Casting was a challenge. Pinnacle pegged Sanderson for Martha from the beginning, but George was more difficult — until West realized Albee’s script specifies that Martha is significantly older than her husband, unlike the casting in the 1966 movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He asked Pinnacle’s artistic director, Jared Larkin, who will turn 40 this year, to take on the role.

Larkin expressed reluctance at first, due to the demands of the part on top of his full-time job as a theater professor at Westminster and his responsibilities as a single father to a 1-year-old adopted daughter.

Two weeks into rehearsal, the role still intimidated him, until one night Sanderson pulled him aside. This play, this role, all of it — you can’t worry about critics, she told him. Be him. Be George. "Rehearsals went a lot better once I got out of my head," Larkin says.

"When they are together and on rhythm, the words just fly off the page and dance," West says. "It’s music and it’s magic."

Sanderson is more modest. Albee’s dialogue is tough to memorize, she says. "His words are so difficult. He is so repetitious, when you get it right, you can hear the music." She recalls the rehearsal when West encouraged them with this: "For the hundreds of words you missed tonight, think of the thousands you got right."

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