Mrs. "Strong Arm" Takes a Bow
The buzz around the theater community started before opening night: Sue Loncar’s good. Not just kinda, sorta OK/decent in the Preston Jones play Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander. But really, really good.
Loncar, 48, plays the title role. That’s not surprising since the production is at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, which she owns with lawyer-husband Brian. He’s the guy in those “Strong Arm” TV commercials touting services for car-wreck cases; he's also a big fan of the paper version of Unfair Park. At the theater, he’s the guy handing out programs at the door or schlepping drinks behind the bar at intermission.
Sue has played leading roles before at her theater, most recently in revivals of The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Laundry & Bourbon, both of which she’s staged twice in the past five years because she likes the Southern mama characters she plays. The misconception is that she casts herself in a lot of starring parts. She actually doesn’t, acting only three or four times a season, often as supporting characters (as in last fall’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and only when directors cast her.
Director René Moreno cast her as Lu Ann. “I hadn’t ever read the script, and he told me I’d be perfect for it,” says Sue in a late-lunch chat at Celebrity Bakery in Highland Park Village, where she eats soup and a gooey slice of cake almost every afternoon.
Turns out she's purt near perfect as Lu Ann, a pretty West Texas good ol’ gal who dreams of a big life and has to settle, in the end, for a small one. Lu Ann’s story is nearly the opposite of Sue’s own -- Lu Ann would regard the Loncars’ Highland Park home as hog heaven compared to her stifling house trailer in Snyder, Texas -- but the actress and character overlap in their thick Texas accents, multiple marriages and their need to always look a little sparkly glamorous, even in T-shirt and jeans.
“This show is the only time I’ve never had to worry about my acting,” says Sue. “René will not let you fail. He kept reminding me where Sue ended and Lu Ann started. I would cry five times in a scene, and he’d say, `Sue cries. Lu Ann doesn’t cry.’ Imagine a director telling you not to cry. He’d say `This isn’t Steel Magnolias.’” (Sue played the weepy mother, M’Lynn, in that one.)
Sue does cry. She admits she’s a terrible boss (she hired former Dallas Morning News theater critic Tom Sime as her managing director two years ago so he could play the heavy with personnel matters) and is a near-pushover as a mom (she has five kids, ranging in age from first-grader to college-age). She also gets her feelings hurt by vicious theater gossip. “I can’t help it,” she says. “I want people to like me.”
She’s given up trying to earn respect from or compete with other Highland Park moms. “My neighbors think I’m a circus performer,” she says. “They have no idea what I do. Some are nice, but they’re few and far between. I’m not like other moms. I work nights. I can’t be at things at school. My youngest bought me a vibrating alarm clock for my birthday because I don’t get up early like other people’s moms.”
Sue married Brian Loncar in 1994. He’s her third husband. She said she knew he was a keeper when on their first date, he sat through a play she was in -- at the matinee and evening performances. On their honeymoon, they went to New York City and saw seven Broadway shows in four days.
It was Brian’s idea, she says, to buy the old Baptist church building on Sears Street off Lower Greenville and turn it into a theater. “He knew I wanted to keep acting but he didn’t want me being a gypsy going theater to theater,” says Sue. They did a seven-figure renovation on the space and brought it up to code. CTD now seats 110 comfortably and, for a hit show like Whorehouse, 160 with less leg room. Sue says she spend around $25,000 on every production. Some break even. Most lose money. Few make any. She hires the top Dallas directors and designers and pays actors better than other local theaters -- around four times more per run of a show than either Theatre Three or Uptown Players.
She’s reconciled herself to not getting the props she probably deserves from actors or critics. (We’ve been hard on her in the past, but she gets a rave this week for Lu Ann.)
“Maybe if I’m here 25 years, I’ll get some respect. I have to make my peace with that. The people who spend $27 to come to the theater love us and love the work that I do as an actor. That’s who I need to make happy,” she says. She knows there are roles she can’t play. “I’m not Meryl Streep. I’m tall and blond and I have big boobs. Ha! What works for me in life works against me onstage.”
Her next leading role will be in CTD’s sixth season production of Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful, directed by Moreno. But that’s four shows from now. Meanwhile she’ll do what she always does. “I just try to get through one more day at the theater. I keep trying to quit, but Brian won’t let me. He says running this theater costs less money than my Visa bills.” --Elaine Liner