NEW YORK — In the final scene of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, “The Glass Menagerie,” a broken glass unicorn symbolizes the shattering of the Wingfield family’s dream for a rosier future. But for actress Sarah Paulson, who plays Laura, the crippled daughter enamored of her Victrola and glass animal collection in director David Leveaux’s current Broadway revival, the reverie continues even when the curtain falls.

“I remember walking around this neighborhood when I was in high school looking at the marquees and thinking, ‘That thing I want to do so much, will I ever really do it?’” says Paulson, who studied acting at the LaGuardia High School for Performing Arts. Her first professional role came at 19, as an understudy in Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig,” at the Barrymore, the very same theater where “Menagerie” is playing.

Though Paulson has been working steadily since — on the WB’s “Jack & Jill,” opposite Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor in “Down With Love” and on the current season of HBO’s “Deadwood” — the Williams play represents something of a career high.

After a cold reading for Leveaux in September, “I ran after the part like a dog in heat,” she recalls. The monthlong wait to be cast was worth it: She now finds herself in the company of her favorite actress, Jessica Lange, whose presence still dumbfounds her. “I had to tell her in the second week of rehearsal that she was my idol. It’s so embarrassing,” explains Paulson. Lange has since become something of a mentor. “It’s a little bizarre to look over and see my name right under hers on a poster. It’s just not possible.”

More than simply possible, Paulson and Lange seamlessly inhabit the volatile mother-daughter relationship, for which critics have singled out the 30-year-old actress’ performance. In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout called her “wholly convincing,” and “the star of the show, really.”

Although Paulson’s natural vivacity and playfulness (she suggests her affinity for Marc Jacobs must be coded in her DNA) might suggest otherwise, she relates to her character’s vulnerabilities. “Laura has a very private world,” she says. “When you rehearse a play for five weeks in a room, it feels very safe and cocoon-like. Then you’re thrust out into this incredibly voyeuristic thing of people just sitting there, staring at you.”

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The attention is something to which Paulson is still adjusting. “When I did ‘Killer Joe’ six years ago here, I was naïve to the power of the New York theater world,” she explains.“It feels like high school; it’s like everyone’s judging whether you have the right shoes on.” With her luminous stage presence, not to mention a gleaming pair of red Marc by Marc Jacobs flats, Paulson should be worry-free.

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