Stage & Dance

For Lexington actress, taking part requires great role

Twenty years ago, Lisa Thomas might have been the go-to actor to play Portia in a production of The Merchant of Venice.

This year, she assumed she was well past being eligible to play the heiress trying to find the right husband. But director Ave Lawyer had different ideas.

"Portia is traditionally portrayed as the hot young babe," Lawyer says. "I was interested in the idea of a more mature Portia."

So she cast Thomas, 49 — whom Lawyer describes as "older but still gorgeous" — in the part, bringing a woman who once was one of Lexington's busiest actors back to the stage for a rare 21st-century appearance.

Thomas got into theater when she was a student at Lafayette High School in the late 1970s. From there, she went to the University of Kentucky, where she became part of an extremely active group of local actors including Martha Bernier Campbell, Trish Clark, Sheila Ferrell, Ed Monaghan and Kevin Hardesty.

That group and others went on to be very active in the Lexington theater scene, working at theaters such as Actors Guild of Lexington and the Lexington Shakespeare Festival (SummerFest's predecessor), and establishing the now-defunct Phoenix Group Theater (directed by Joe Ferrell, now artistic director of SummerFest).

"We were doing plays all the time," Thomas says of herself and her husband, Paul Thomas. "We'd just go from one show to another."

And that's the way she liked it.

"I always wanted to be an actor," Lisa Thomas says. "That was my favorite thing.

"But I wanted to be a mom more."

As her children Ross, now 16, and Maggie, 11, were born, Thomas largely left the stage, save for occasional appearances.

She wasn't appearing for just any roles though.

In 2003, she played Blanche DuBois opposite Hardesty in AGL's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and she played opposite him again — as she did many times in the 1980s and '90s — in 2007's SummerFest production of The Crucible. She also went to Studio Players in 2006 for Lawyer's production of Joe Egg, opposite Bob Singleton, also her leading man in The Merchant of Venice.

"For me to come out these days, I like to have a great director, a great play and a great cast," says Thomas, who notes her daughter doesn't like her parents being away for rehearsals and performances. The past couple of months have been tough because Merchant rehearsals started when Paul Thomas was wrapping up work on an independent production of Equus at the Downtown Arts Center.

During the past decade, Lisa Thomas says, she has become more of a local theater fan, enjoying work at places such as Balagula Theatre at Natasha's Bistro & Bar.

But the idea of a new take on Portia was a sufficient carrot to draw her to The Arboretum, even though she feels as if she's getting too old for the heat and the bugs.

"I knew it was one of Shakespeare's strongest roles for women and I was familiar with the 'quality of mercy' speech," Thomas says, referring to Portia's famous courtroom oration near the end of the play. "I read it thinking there were real possibilities for an older take on this role."

Portia's father's will states that suitors must choose between three caskets. If a man chooses the right one, containing her portrait, he wins Portia's hand in marriage. She wants to marry Bassanio (played by Singleton), but she cannot give him clues to the right choice, and she has several other suitors.

"I don't act flip about it," she says, referring to a common way to play Portia. "I am considering all of them seriously, because at my age, I know my opportunities are running out."

But, as Thomas' career shows, some opportunities can come back around.

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