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Teresa Sanderson: Finding the heart of theater’s most vicious character

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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.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jun 07 2014 01:01AM
Updated Jun 13, 2014 04:33PM

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.

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.

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."

The power of a song • Of course it makes sense when you learn young Teresa Findlay’s life changed with a song. An Elvis Presley song, to be exact.

But that’s getting a few years ahead of her story. Even as a baby, she was acting and singing, her mother told her. "I was that kid who wrote all the plays and made all the kids in the neighborhood come over and put capes on," Sanderson says.

School days at Mount Fort Junior High were difficult. "I was really, really skinny and I had a great big nose and short hair," she recalls, the perfect target for bullying.

That’s when a song changed everything. A teacher assigned a lip-sync performance, and Teresa’s rendition of Elvis’ "Jailhouse Rock" brought down the English class. "Literally that song changed my life," she says. "From then on, I was cool."

After graduating from Ben Lomond High, she was recruited to study theater at Utah State University, where she was tapped to play a mainstage role as a freshman and went on to perform at the Old Lyric Repertory company.

For a time, she lived in California, first performing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville theater company, then living in Los Angeles, where she mostly supported herself with voiceover work. She found out that TV and movie work wasn’t her calling. "I’m meant to be onstage," she says now. "I want to tell the story from beginning to end, and I don’t mind doing it eight times a week."

After several years, she returned to Utah, drawn back to USU by the opportunity to play Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." But a rape — by someone on campus — cut short her degree plans. She was burned out, tired of living in her Volkswagen, so she found a real job, managing a Checker Auto store in Roy. A customer came in looking for an air filter, then returned three or four times that day just to talk to Teresa, eventually asking her to a Bob James jazz concert.

She married Barry Sanderson, had two babies, and eventually the family settled in Layton. She volunteered at her kids’ schools, launching elementary-school theater programs and acting in one or two shows a year. Along the way she helped care for aging family members.

As her children grew older, Sanderson began performing regularly in Salt Lake City theaters, including Pygmalion Productions, where she serves on the company’s board, and in a wide variety of ensemble and starring roles for Plan-B Theatre Company. She volunteers at the Davis Arts Council, helping to stage manage concerts and produce theatrical shows.

"Outside of her acting, she just makes theater happen," says Fossen, who recounts the practical support Sanderson offered when his mother passed away while he was directing a show. "She gives a lot, and that’s more important to me than how talented she is."

Sanderson’s a big actor who can easily fill a stage, but she’s also able to blend into the background as needed, says Fran Pruyn, artistic director of Pygmalion Productions, who has worked with Sanderson in numerous productions over more than 20 years. "She’s smart, she understands how to find the heart of the characters, and she’s fearless," Pruyn says. "Once she was more of a performer, and she’s now definitely more of an actor."

Bennett, the playwright, praises Sanderson’s versatility. "I think the substance of her genius is how she can transform without the ‘funny voices’ school of acting," he says. "She does it in a way that’s 90 percent internal, and 10 percent external, which is quite rare."

Now at 54, Sanderson says it feels like the theater gods are smiling on her. She laughs about the irony of finding the perfect dresses for Mama Rose and Martha among the vintage clothing in her own wardrobe.

And Sanderson credits her life experiences — nurturing a long marriage, raising children, overcoming rape and alcoholism, nursing her father and in-laws, as well as helping tend two new grandbabies — for giving her the gravitas to create such volatile characters.

Opportunity aside, playing Martha is as physically bruising as it is emotionally challenging. The character is shoved around, gets choked and slapped, and makes out with a 25-year-old as well as her husband. Plus, she downs nine drinks in the first act. "I’m not doing anything easy," Sanderson says. "I like a challenge."

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist

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