I was so excited when I found out that Katharine Powell, my best friend from college, was cast to read for the role of Amelia Brighton for the audiobook of A Place at the Table. Katharine and I both transferred to Brown our junior year. We, along with one other housemate, were assigned to live in a ramshackle off-campus house with five bedrooms. Why only three women in a five bedroom house? Because in the city of Providence there was an antiquated brothel law on the books: no more than three unrelated females were allowed to live under one roof.
My memory of the house is that it had only two lamps in the entire two-story space, and the only overhead lights were in the bathrooms and the kitchen. Its furnishings were sparse: three single beds, three dressers with drawers that stuck, three desks, three wastepaper baskets. I arrived first and had to fight back tears as I walked from one desolate room to another.
And then a U-Haul arrived and out jumped Katharine, a tiny, beautiful bundle of optimism, along with her laid-back boyfriend from New York City. They both seemed incredibly cosmopolitan to me in their skinny jeans and black t-shirts. Immediately they began carting in furniture: sofas, lamps, dressers, beds, which had all been in storage at Katharine’s childhood home. Katharine spent that first week nesting, making our ramshackle house into a home. She even deep-cleaned the 100-year-old oven in our kitchen. Then she took a shower, put on nice clothes and a killer pair of boots, and went and auditioned for the first play the Brown theatre group was putting on that fall. Does it come as any surprise that Katharine was cast as the lead?
I asked Katharine if she would reflect on the experience of reading for Amelia Brighton for the audiobook of A Place at the Table. Here is her response:
Susan and I were roommates at Brown and have been close ever since. The summer she was going through her divorce, Susan rented an apartment blocks from me on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. That summer, we walked a lot in the park, met at the Corner Bakery on 3rd and 93rd, or just sat on the floor of my apartment and talked while my son played. It was special, to get that kind of face time with my college roommate, all these years later.
When Susan first asked me to read for her audiobook, I was thrilled. My agent mailed me the manuscript and I could not put it down. I am a huge fan of Susan’s writing, and I think A Place At The Table is her finest work to date. After I read the manuscript, I started to get nervous. I hadn’t recorded an audiobook in years and wanted to do Susan’s writing justice. I took the train to New York (we live in Philly now) and bought a pair of shoes right before the session started. They were gold flats and felt like something my character, Amelia, might wear. I got to the studio and found that once I started reading the words aloud, it all felt incredibly organic.
Amelia for me was an amalgamation: part me, part Susan, part modern-day Katharine Hepburn, part Vivienne Benesch (a theater actress I know and respect a great deal), and part Alexandra Styron, based on her powerful memoir about her father.
Susan has a gift for the truth, and anytime that happens, it makes an actor’s job feel somewhat effortless. I trusted her writing to do most of work for me. Everything had been going along smoothly that first session, I was having a lot of fun bringing her characters to life (particularly the Southern ones as my family of origin is from the South). Then, about three pages from the end of Part 3, out of nowhere, I just lost it! I was overcome with emotion, sadness really, and could not read another word. The producer was lovely about it. I took a moment to have a good cry, recompose myself, and then was fine to continue. But, I think the accumulative effect of reading my dear friend’s most personal voice, her deepest imagination, and the rewards of her grief finally caught up with me. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced as an actor before, knowing the writer on such a personal level. It was an amazing experience for me, and I am so glad to have had it!
Buy the audiobook to hear Katharine’s pitch-perfect embodiment of Amelia. And while Katharine’s reading of Amelia is not in this audio clip from Simon & Schuster audio, you can get an idea of the quality of the production by listening to an excerpt of the prologue read by the brilliant Robin Miles, who plays Alice.