It's Monday, the standard actors' day off. And on her break from rehearsals for a play that is the emotional and physical equivalent of a clothes wringer, Carrie Coon has spent the afternoon buried in a 600-page biography of playwright Tennessee Williams.
"Rick (Corley) knows that I like biographies," says Coon, referring to the artistic director of Madison Repertory Theatre, who's also directing Coon's latest role. "So he gave me this last night when he had the cast over for dinner at his house. He's got a bunch of bookshelves that I envy."
A 2006 product of the UW-Madison's graduate program in theater, Coon, 26, is a reader, thinker, literary analyst and hardcore soccer player who just happens to be an actress. About a year ago, over coffee, Richard Corley handed her another piece of reading.
"He pushed this script across the table and said, 'What do you think?'," she recalls. "I looked down: 'Anna Christie' by Eugene O'Neill."
It is a deep and wrenching role, one that Coon will fill when Madison Rep opens "Anna Christie" Friday at The Playhouse in Overture Center. The 1922 drama won O'Neill his second Pulitzer; the playwright would go on to revolutionize American theater and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Even before Corley's offer, Coon was an O'Neill fan; she'd checked out a huge volume of his plays from the library in search of meaty monologues.
But she was unfamiliar with the legacy of "Anna Christies" who'd played the tortured young prostitute returning to a sea-faring father she hardly knew -- legendary actresses like Pauline Lord, Greta Garbo and Liv Ullman.
Soon, Coon launched herself into the research: Poring over Louis Sheaffer's two-volume biography of O'Neill; studying books on prostitution in the early 20th century; and reading the entire "Anna Christie" script on a daily basis.
"I go to it through my head," explains Coon, barefoot and wearing jeans in the home of a professor who has loaned her a spare room for the play's run
And yet when others describe Coon, they use words like "instinctive" and "disarming."
"She has a remarkable presence," says Susan Sweeney, who teaches in the UW graduate theater program. "A physical beauty, a sereneness. I think audiences respond to that."
"Carrie is something quite rare," adds David Frank, producing artistic director at American Players Theatre, where Coon will play Hypatia in George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance" this summer. "She's both courageous and intuitive, and at the same time she's very smart and has a great sense of literature and style. She's a very splendid young actress."
Raised in an Ohio farmhouse outside Akron, the middle of five children, Coon grew up "barefoot and outside" on five acres. While getting her bachelor's in English and Spanish at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, she ran track, played soccer and acted in a few plays. A professor recommended that she audition for graduate schools. UW-Madison offered a deal, including a teaching assistantship.
"I said, 'What am I doing?,' " says Coon, incredulously. "I really was concerned about being practical. And my parents said, 'You're 22 years old. Go to acting school! You have your whole life in front of you.' "
And yet, Coon continued to struggle with the idea of devoting herself to the stage.
"I felt like I was doing something very self-indulgent sometimes, that I was being selfish in the pursuit of this art form that I really didn't understand, that I really hadn't spent any time around, that I didn't know much about," she explains in a rich alto speaking voice. "I had to ask the question all the time: 'What am I actually contributing?' "
Coon had been on mission trips to El Salvador, the homeland of her adopted sister. At the UW, "I would go to meetings for the Peace Corps. I felt a longing to make a real contribution that I could see.
"What I came to realize was the three years I spent in graduate school -- when you're in acting school, you're asked to pay attention to yourself ever single day," she says. "The self-awareness that you accomplish in three years would take you 10 in the real world. In this environment, you're under a microscope; you have to confront a lot of your weaknesses. You become much more aware of your strengths.
"And I realized that it was the exact right place for me at 22. And what a gift it was to really be able to examine myself and my life."
Anna Christie is Coon's second Madison Rep role; last year, Corley hand-picked her for the part of Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," the production that opened the Rep's new home in The Playhouse. Since completing her M.F.A. last May, Coon has found steady work doing voice-overs and training videos, plus working in motion-capture technology, where she creates the physical movements that will be used by the animated characters in a video game.
This spring Coon heads to Chicago to audition for the 2008 theater season. She'll return to APT for the summer before settling back in Chicago, where she's already signed with an agent.
" 'Anna Christie' is like a Beethoven symphony," says the Rep's Corley. "It's huge. Carrie is not only obviously very intelligent, but she's also not afraid to take risks and leap into the operatic side of it. She's a very talented young actress who deserves to play roles like this."