Laura Norman is one of the more talented actors around, subtle and intelligent, capable of deep emotion but never sentimental or hackneyed. She can rescue a mediocre play and add a very specific kind of shine to an excellent one.
In 2005, she received a Best of Denver award for her portrayal of Harper in Bas Bleu's production of Tony Kushner's brilliant Angels in America. She "moderated Harper's dopey ethereality with a wry humor and a sense of groundedness," we said. But she was equally terrific in the far slighter but very funny role of a murderous wife in Michele Lowe's The Smell of the Kill at the Avenue a year later. Although she's done a few plays since, it has now been four years since she last appeared on a local stage.
See also: - Saving grace: Ambitious Angels in America lands at Bas Bleu - Curious Theatre Company makes beautiful music in Opus - An Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf provides some food for thought
Sometimes, Norman says, she didn't get cast in roles she auditioned for; there were other years when she found her theater schedule too intense and wanted a break. But this weekend she's back, appearing in the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's production of Michael Hollinger's Ghost-Writer -- an outing with an impressive pedigree. The director is playwright and actor Josh Hartwell, and Norman's co-stars are multiple award-winner Jim Hunt and Anne Sandoe of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. As those who saw his Opus at Curious a couple of years ago and BETC's production of An Empty Plate at the Cafe du Grand Boeuf know, Hollinger is a literate and very intriguing writer.
The play begins in 1919, and Norman plays Myra Babbage, dedicated secretary to Franklin Woolsey, a famous writer who dictates his novels to her. After his death, she still hears his voice -- or says she does -- and continues work on his last and supposedly most important novel. Concerned about both the relationship and Woolsey's legacy, his wife intervenes.
Norman says she didn't know the play before being asked to audition, but once she had read the script, she knew "it was one I needed to try for."
She adds, "When you take a break from something and get back into it, you really realize just how cool it is. The script was so good. And then just to audition felt good. And to actually get the role was awesome. Josh is brilliant, and so is working with Jim Hunt again. And Anne Sandoe is fabulous."
The relationship between Babbidge and Woolsey starts out "very proper," she explains: "They spend a lot of time together, often in total silence. He's waiting for the next words to come so she can type them. His wife starts to sense that they've got a close connection and she's not real comfortable with that."
It's unclear whether Babbage is truly channeling Woolsey or whether she's delusional, Norman says. This is appropriate, since Hollinger has said he was inspired to write the play by an anecdote he heard about Henry James, and it's clear the plot owes something to James's famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. "Ultimately," Norman says, "the play is about writing and the beauty of writing -- and it's also a love story."
Norman went to high school in Parker, and majored in theater at the University of Northern Colorado. "I've been in Colorado ever since," she says. "I figured at some point I'd move to a bigger city. My husband is from England and has family in England and Wales. We also toyed with moving to New York or California, but Colorado is a great place and great for theater. We hike, I'm a runner."
During her absence from the stage, she worked on some indie film projects and, through an agent in New Mexico, read a couple of times for Breaking Bad. She also had a plum role in the series In Plain Sight.
As for the role of Babbage, she says, "We were taught at UNC you've really got to pay attention to the words; the playwright chose certain words for a reason and there are clues all through the script. I go through the script and mark it a lot. I tend to start there. And keeping it active -- in every scene you have to figure out what you're fighting for or trying to do and how you're going to get there. Finding the character always feels like it just comes out of that. I have friends who start work on a part from the outside in; I think I'm more inside out. There's a little channel and if you open up to it everything you need is there."
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There's so much there that her four-year absence from the stage "feels like only a year or two," she says. "I'm enjoying Ghost-Writer so much. And remembering all the reasons I wanted to do theater to begin with." Ghost-Writer runs from Friday, February 1 through February 16 at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder. For ticket information, call 888-512-7469 or go to www.boulderensembletheatre.org.