Heart of Glass — Celia Keenan-Bolger Finds Strength in Fragile Characters

By Marc Acito
December 15, 2013

Celia Keenan-Bolger, starring on Broadway in The Glass Menagerie, reveals her stronger side to Playbill.com.



A neglected child. A street urchin. An emotionally crippled shut-in. Welcome to the world of Celia Keenan-Bolger.

Audiences who have witnessed the heartbreaking vulnerability of her roles on Broadway could naturally assume that the petite actress is as fragile as the glass unicorn she cherishes onstage in the revival of The Glass Menagerie. But sitting across from her, one is struck by the fact that the two-time Tony nominee is so, well, normal.

"Maybe it's the great luck of having pretty high-functioning family and generally good DNA that feels positive," she said. "So I've always wondered, 'Where is the darkness?'"

Keenan-Bolger exhibits none of the roughness you'd expect from someone who grew up in inner-city Detroit. The daughter of an urban planner and a teacher, she attended an arts high school.

"I was one of two white kids in my high school," she said. "I grew up a minority. I always felt outside."

That sense of being an outsider has influenced her stage interpretations, beginning with her first break, playing the brain-damaged Clara in the original out-of-town productions of The Light in the Piazza, a role that went on to make a theatre star of Kelli O'Hara — "No one can sing like Kelli O'Hara," Keenan-Bolger said with a shrug.

The other problem was that Keenan-Bolger looked so young onstage, which actually worked to her advantage to play Olive in the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

"Thank God for Spelling Bee," she said. "I was like, 'I'm the person who just got fired from the Adam Guettel musical.'"

Keenan-Bolger did draw upon a heartbreak to play Eponine in the 2006 revival of Les Misérables. "I was going through a break-up," she said, "which, unfortunately, was useful."

Keenan-Bolger in The Glass Menagerie
Photo by Michael J. Lutch

The actress, however, felt she had reached a plateau. "In musicals I was playing these wounded birds." So she turned to Off-Broadway: She took on the role of a drug-addicted party girl in The Bachelorette and a bride in crisis in A Small Fire. After one show, an audience member confronted her, saying, "'You were a real b*tch.' That was a very different response to what I was used to," Keean-Bolger said. "And I thought, 'I think I like it.'"

Her next role, Molly in Peter and the Starcatcher, was far closer to her own delightful nature, even though she's 20 years older than the 13-year-old character. It earned her a second Tony nod.

A third nomination seems likely, given the universal praise she's received for her interpretation of Laura in The Glass Menagerie, a role that intimidated her at first.

"For the first two weeks of rehearsal, I didn't have a limp," she explained. "I just didn't know what it was and I felt like in some way it's the least of her problems."

In that regard, she wasn't able to enlist the help of her brother Andrew, who had recently played a disabled character in Newsies. "Andrew's character was definitely defined by the disability. I mean, he's called Crutchie."

Finally director John Tiffany asked the actress, "Well, if you did have a limp, what would it look like?" The result is now onstage eight shows a week, followed by some restorative physical therapy.

Laura's fragility reminded Keenan-Bolger of the character she would rather have forgotten: Clara in The Light in the Piazza. "There was a time when I wished I'd never done that show because the experience was so sad. And now I'm grateful I did. All that work all those years ago, building a foundation, is showing up now.”

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Celia Keenan-Bolger and Brian J. Smith
Photo by Michael J. Lutch