In this day of online dating, countless social media platforms and fingertip technology, the antiquated concept of the gentleman caller is lost on Kami Cooper and anyone younger than, say, 85.
Not to worry, it also eludes Laura Wingfield, the ultra-shy reclusive and reluctant protagonist in “The Glass Menagerie,” which opens Friday at the Nebraska Repertory Theatre.
That’s made it easier for Cooper, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior theater major, to understand and play Laura, a Depression-era woman in her early 20s whose noticeable limp — the result of a childhood illness — has magnified her lack of self-confidence and destined her to a life of loneliness.
The gentleman caller, a courtship ritual from a bygone era, is just as it sounds.
“The idea of a gentleman caller is very, very foreign to me,” Cooper said. “Laura is so shy and so insecure with the gentleman caller. She doesn’t understand it. Kami doesn’t have to understand it, either. Laura doesn’t get it and doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable.
“It’s nothing she wants.”
That’s not entirely true. Everybody, even someone as woefully timid as Laura, wants love. But love can’t be accepted by one lacking self-love. Laura’s extreme shyness is every bit as crippling as her physical affliction. She's isolated herself by creating a world of her own that is symbolized by her collection of glass figurines.
Tennessee Williams’ 1937 play that’s set in a small St. Louis apartment is a tale of lost hope and despair. It tells the story of a scorned woman, a financially-strapped faded Southern belle living with her young adult children — a frustrated and irritable son, an aspiring poet who is providing for the family by languishing in a shoemaking factory, and Laura, a shut-in whose mother decides she needs a husband.
And if this sounds depressing — it wasn’t called the Great Depression for nothing — you’re not alone. “The Glass Menagerie” is a raw and honest look at the fragility of the human condition.
It “explores characters who are struggling to survive and find happiness in an often cruel and difficult world,” said Andy Park, the Nebraska Repertory Theatre’s artistic director who also directed the play.
“Throughout the play, the Wingfield family fights to balance the harsh reality of life against their future hopes and dreams. While all of the characters in the play attempt to escape their present disappointments, Williams refuses to let any of the characters off the hook for a play Williams contends should be ‘a snare for the truth of human experience.’”
It’s a challenging role for Cooper, a native of Canyon Lake, Texas, who has had to summon her inner shyness to accurately portray Laura.
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“I keep being told to be more shy and those kinds of things,” she said. “I don’t think of myself as a shy person. I think of myself as an introvert, but I realize that a lot of other people don’t. They might see me as a confident, bubbly, outgoing person. While I am all of those things, I am very insecure, as many people are.”
Park said it feels like this role was written for Cooper. "She’s at a point in her training where she is ready to take something on of this magnitude, and she’s going to be extraordinary.”
To prepare for the role, Cooper said she turned to the author and, more specifically, his writing style.
“One of the great things about Tennessee Williams is his punctuation and his command over the language,” she said. “When you think of a confident person, you think of someone who talks a lot with a lot of run-on sentences and commas and added things.
“Laura’s text is very short and simple sentences with a period at the end. Each of those sentences is very carefully thought out before she speaks. That is not something I always do as a person, but Laura does. Using the punctuation as a guide — and with a breath — has been very helpful.”
Unlike Laura Wingfield, Cooper has mastered her fear of venturing into the world.
As a high school senior, she took part in a global outreach program and made a trip to Tanzania. Deciding to attend college in Lincoln away from her family was both terrifying and “empowering.” Now she sees a future that includes pursuing a career in theater in Boston.
That future, she hopes, will include acting, as well as managing a theater. A business minor, Cooper pays close attention to the process and the administrative details involved in a production.
“I want to do it all,” she said. “As much as I love the acting part of it, I also love being able to put my hands into that part that runs it.”
The quest to be a triple threat — accomplished in singing, dancing and acting — isn’t lost on Cooper, but her triple-threat aspirations have a vastly different meaning.
“In my world, it’s not being a singer, actor and dancer,” she said. “Mine is being able to balance a checkbook, being able to understand a spreadsheet and being able to do all of those practical things you need in life.”