Strange gifts: Valerie Haugen in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesValerie Haugen takes on the role of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," opening this weekend at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale.

CARBONDALE – Valerie Haugen had moved 32 times by the time she was 17; such is life in a military family. Asked what she got out of the peripatetic upbringing, Haugen quipped, “I’m a good packer.”

The constant uprooting and relocating left Haugen with another talent: the ability to adapt, to learn how to fit into yet another new environment. As the associate artistic director of Thunder River Theatre Company, she has put that skill to great use. Since the Carbondale-based Thunder River was created 16 years ago, with Haugen as a founding member, she has appeared in 38 shows, while directing, co-directing or writing a handful more. (It has helped, possibly, that Haugen was born with drama: Her father was stationed in Puerto Rico when Haugen was about to come into the world; her maternal grandfather paid for Haugen’s mom to fly to San Antonio, so that Valerie could be born in Texas. Two weeks later, the infant Valerie was back in Puerto Rico.)

As her career has advanced, Haugen has kept what she refers to as “the list” – those roles that she hasn’t done that start to look increasingly juicy. And, in some cases, increasingly unlikely for her to get. Among those is Shakespeare’s teenage tragic heroine, Juliet.

“I may never play Juliet – but I say maybe,” the 49-year-old Haugen (it’s pronounced HOW-gen, a Norwegian name) said. “Sarah Bernhardt did Juliet, with only one leg, at about 78. And people wrote about her golden voice, believing her as Juliet, this 14-year-old character. So there’s always hope.”

While she fantasizes about Juliet, Haugen has actually crossed a big one off her list. Thunder River’s current production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” – selected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of playwright Tennessee Williams – stars Haugen as Blanche DuBois. The production, directed by Thunder River artistic director Lon Winston, opened last week, and continues with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 4-6, and Thursday through Saturday, March 10-12.

With the faded, delusional Southern belle Blanche, Haugen adds one more to the list of prominent characters she has portrayed, a tally that includes the best of Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth, Portia, Titania) and the Greeks (Medea, Lysistrata, Antigone), Mother Courage, Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?” and Emily Dickinson in the one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst.” In “Wit,” Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Haugen played Vivian, a professor diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

“I shaved my head, took off all my clothes and went to heaven at the end. People who were never nice to me were nice to me because of that haircut,” Haugen said.

“As artistic director, I’ve gone through phases where people ask why we use Valerie for all these great roles. The truth is, she’s incredible at it,” said Winston, who has worked with Haugen since the early ’90s, before Thunder River was formed. “One, she’s one of the smartest people I know. We use these words too easily, but she’s brilliant. She’s incredibly well read, which brings the literature into her work at a staggering level. She’s got an amazing memory. And she’s disciplined, she got the nuts and bolts. You never hear her say, ‘No, I can’t.’ She just throws herself into the work.”

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Before coming to Colorado, Haugen worked with the Pelican Players, a company on Sanibel Island, off Florida’s Gulf Coast. The resident playwright there boxed Haugen into one character.

“He made me the smart girl in love – the lawyer in love, the college girl in love,” Haugen, whose day job is working for a publisher of business news – “glorified proof-reader” she calls the position. “I begged him for other parts when I saw the trend. I begged to be the lesbian who delivers the baby: ‘Just let me be the tattooed lesbian, let me expand my boundaries a little.'”

At Thunder River, Haugen has been the heroic Athenian trying to end war and a woman who profits from war. She has been the wife of a London clergyman, a Hollywood screenwriter, a cancer patient and a famous, 19th century Russian actress. Thinking over the wealth of meaty characters she has played, Haugen claims to be “the luckiest actor in the world.”

An outsider might note that great luck has not followed her away from the stage. Haugen’s family life has been marked by an unfair amount of illness and death, and three years ago, she was handed a further streak of misfortune as her father, mother, younger sister and stepfather all died in a span of months.

Haugen seems to have handled it with grace. She presents herself as delicate – although the fact that she is in the midst of playing Blanche may have something to do with it – but also open and lacking in bitterness.

“She plays all these women who portray an inner life. And few people have experienced all of that like Valerie,” Winston said. “She’s very vulnerable, sensitive and delicate on one hand. On the other hand, there’s a fierceness to her. When she socializes, meeting people, all that stuff we do in the company, there is this fragility, vulnerability. In the work, she is dynamic, strong, fierce. I think any true artist has a paradox; we live in these different worlds. You have that kind of interior and bring it into roles like Blanche and Mother Courage. Yet she can also play Emily Dickinson, and bring tenderness and vulnerability to it.”

Haugen views her challenges as a gift to her acting. It is a subject she explored in the first play she wrote, “What Drips in Sleep Against the Heart.” The play, which has yet to be performed, explores “how poetry saved my life,” she said.

“There’s a sacredness to suffering,” continued Haugen, a Glenwood Springs resident who has lived in the valley for 19 years. “There are strange gifts that come with loss and suffering. There’s a gift of strength. As an actor, these experiences bring strange gifts to me. Hopefully it’s tenderized me. Life is supposed to break you, and I want it to break me beautifully. I want it to make me more loving, more compassionate, more able to use my powers for good.”

Blanche DuBois affords plenty of opportunity to get into issues of suffering, compassion, loss and tenderness. Blanche has been hurt; she has fallen. And going to New Orleans to visit her sister, Stella (played in Thunder River’s production by Jennifer Michaud), only deepens the downward spiral. In Stella’s shabby apartment, Blanche runs into the brick wall that is her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Lee Sullivan) – a raging brute who muscles Blanche further into the darkness.

“Tennessee Williams’ women, these princesses, belong to this dying world. All his women are lost,” said Haugen, who last season played Amanda in the playwright’s “The Glass Menagerie.” “In ‘Streetcar,’ the first thing someone says is, ‘Are you lost, honey?’ So right away, she admits she’s lost.

“Blanche is the queen of a country that has died, the old South, an agrarian place. And Stanley represents this industrial world that is coming on strong and is going to smash into everything in its path.”

Having lost so many family members in such a short stretch, Haugen believes she understands Blanche and her tailspin. “These two girls are the only ones left,” she said of Blanche and Stella. “And Blanche is losing her grip a little. Losing so much of my family makes me want to tell the truth of Blanche. She’s got all kinds of treasures in her heart. I have to choose for myself, what is the truth for Blanche and what are her lies? But I believe her when she says, ‘I’ve never been deliberately cruel.'”

Haugen believes that theater itself is a tremendous gift that’s been given to her. Stepping into the shoes of Blanche, Lady Macbeth and Medea has allowed her to find herself, heal herself, adapt herself.

“I think that I know myself better because of it,” she said. “Art allows you to feel changed by the experience. I know ‘The Belle of Amherst’ changed my life. I know playing Blanche DuBois enriches me.

“People shouldn’t go into it for therapy. But it is therapeutic. Just to get to play is therapeutic. And in Thunder River, being able to do profound roles, it helps me in every way. ‘Streetcar’ is all about survival. And so is life. Blanche doesn’t survive; she’s destroyed. To be able to hand myself over to stories like that is therapeutic and a huge blessing to me. And to our audience.”


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