From the time she first stepped onto the stage as a teenager in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Diane Lamb has been hooked on performing. A 32-year veteran of Theatre Albany, she says that her favorite parts are that first one — Ado Annie, who she portrayed in “Oklahoma!” on the Chagrin Valley Little Theater stage, which is where comedian Tim Conway got his start — and whichever part she’s played most recently. “Oliver!” was the first Theatre Albany play she appeared in. The staff accountant at Phoebe North says she’s done a little bit of everything in theater, from acting to costuming to lights to helping get a theater started in North Carolina. And Theatre Albany, celebrating its 80th year, was an attraction for Lamb to move here. “I remember ... I said I wasn’t moving anywhere they didn’t have a community theater,” she says. When the curtain rises Thursday on the eight-performance run of the thriller “Spider Island,” Lamb will portray Salem Mayo, one of two sisters residing in the living quarters of an abandoned lighthouse off the coast of Maine. Last week, Lamb spoke with Jim Hendricks about the play, preparing for her role ... and learning how to sharpen an ax.
AH: How long have you been with Theatre Albany?
DL: Since 1980. Everything is long now that I’m old.
AH: Have you done this type of drama before, a suspense play?
DL: Actually, in all my theater experience, this one is relatively new. The closest thing I’ve done to something suspenseful would have been “Agnes of God.” But this is so much more.
AH: What have you done mostly? Have you focused on comedy or just anything that’s come up?
DL: Comedy. I’ve always loved the timing with comedy, and I love the audience’s reaction. When I do something that’s more dramatic, it’s quite a change to hear the silence as opposed to the laughter and applause. That’s something you get used to. Now with this show, I think we’re going to have to get used to hearing some screaming.
AH: Oh, really? Is it that scary?
DL: It’s very scary. When we had our first read-through, it scared the cast. (Laughs) It really is frightening. We’re warning all of those who are faint of heart.
AH: We’re not going to have to get Mark (Costello, Theatre Albany’s artistic director) to put up a warning sign out front for, you know, pregnant women ...
DL: (Laughs) He thought about having an ambulance parked out in the driveway.
AH: I don’t want you to give away any of the plot, obviously. ... Tell me a little about your character. You play one of the Mayo sisters (Salem).
DL: I do. She has lived on this island her entire life and she’s six miles from the mainland. And Mark kept trying to help us understand what that isolation would feel like. With nobody around, you don’t run to the corner store for milk ... you’re just totally isolated. And her primary concern is her sister, Abbie (Kathleen Stroup). And at all costs, she will protect her sister. I have to be very careful not to give things away.
AH: I understand. In talking with Mark, he explained to me that the sister Abbie has the feeling that their dead brother is upstairs, still alive somewhere, and I’m under the impression that your character just kind of humors her on that.
DL: Right, we try not to upset Abbie. I constantly tell anyone that comes to our house that it’s best not to upset her. We just play along with anything she happens to say.
AH: And there’s a pretty impressive looking ax on the back of the set that I saw.
DL: Actually, last night, I was given a lesson on how to sharpen an ax.
DL: Yeah, I had to do that last night for the first time and after I did it, I said, “You know, I’ve never done this, am I doing it right?” And, of course, I wasn’t.
AH: You have to get that down because you never know when there’s a professional ax sharpener out in the audience who’s going to spot that.
DL: (Laughs) You pretty much have to get everything down when you’re working with Mark Costello.
AH: I don’t remember (Theatre Albany) doing a play along these lines (in recent years). How do you think the regular theater-goers are going accept this thriller?
DL: I think those that come are going to appreciate the work that has gone into this show. However, you are right, people love to hear the big show names. They’ll come to see “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” and those big shows. But the real staunch theatergoers love to see something like this that’s different, that has meat to it. Mark is good, the theater is good to provide those types of shows to the community occasionally, and that helps the community to grow as a cultural, theatrical audience.
AH: Was it difficult for you to get yourself into the head of your character?
DL: Yes, it was, because she’s totally different than I am. In fact, even after the first read-through my fellow cast members said, “Oh, Diane, how are you going to do that? You’re so nice and she’s so mean.” This one has been a challenge. But the more you rehearse it, the more you feel that part, the more you relate to the other characters, and then you understand and you get a grip on it. And I can’t explain to you how that happens. It’s just the product of rehearsal. People often ask me, “How do you learn those lines?” “How do you do that?” And I can’t explain how that happens.
AH: It almost seems that the set itself is a seventh character in this play.
DL: Oh, it is marvelous! We are so fortunate to have (longtime technical director) Steve Felmet here in this community. I can’t believe that Broadway hasn’t swept him up. His sets are always impeccable, and to see him build this one from the ground up has just been fascinating. Every night when you come in, there’s something new added to the set, something different. It’s just like developing the character. He develops the set and it takes time. I walked out the other night and noticed there were beams on the ceiling. It’s just amazing to see what he does with an open, blank space. ... He’s such a professional. There are just no words to say how fortunate we are to have him at Theatre Albany.
AH: Have you done anything to prepare for the isolation part of it? Do you rehearse your lines at home or are they in your head all the time?
DL: I put my cue lines on a tape recorder and I silently read my lines in between to leave the space, and that’s how I rehearse. My husband (Louie Lamb Jr.), although he’s extremely supportive, doesn’t want to know anything about the show until he sees it. He wants to be surprised, too. I put it on a tape recorder and I work and work and work. In fact, just before I called you, I was working on Act III, and I’ll work three or four pages three or four times until I feel comfortable with it.
AH: The remoteness is such a big deal in the play. Do you close yourself off from everybody when you rehearse?
DL: Yes, I do. That really has nothing to do with this show, however. It’s just how I have to learn them (parts). That’s just my style. I have to be by myself.
AH: Your character, Salem — is this somebody you’d want to have in your family?
DL: (Laughs) It is somebody I have in my family, or have had. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. I have an old cousin who has passed now that I think about as I’m playing this character. She was from Pennsylvania.
AH: I understand that character’s in the lines and such, but you’ve done so many parts with Theatre Albany. Do you have to kind of associate a character with someone you’ve known in your life who fits it enough to kind of flesh it out a bit?
DL: That’s what I do. I’ve always done that. Again, that might just be my style. I try to think of people who remind me of the character. And it might be two or three people. There might be parts of a person, and I bring all of them into that character. My cousin from Pennsylvania is definitely a big part of Salem. And she was relatively isolated. She was on a Christmas tree farm as opposed to an island, but she had a rough life, you know, outdoorsy. Salem has a lot to do as far as fishing and chopping the wood and things women today don’t do very much.
AH: I know when I looked up the play, which is from 1942, it said something along the lines of if you thought a play featuring six women couldn’t scare the bejesus out of you, then you need to come see this thing.
DL: And that’s the truth. Each character has its own little twist. Of course, the two young girls involved — Star and Patsy ( Kelly Mullins and Courtney Lawson) — they’re just surprised by all of us who have been living on this island. There’s Meg (Vickie Lewis) and Abbie and Dullie (Abby Evans) and myself. We’re all very, very different than these modern girls from the mainland.
AH: And Meg’s not your best friend from what I understand.
DL: Meg is something else. This is her first show, as far as I know, and she’s amazing. I think Mark probably came across Vickie and said, “Oh, let’s do ‘Spider Island.’” She is so wonderful in her part.
AH: Do you feel like the chemistry of the cast has come together?
DL: Oh, yes, I do. In fact, I said that last night, even though we were still a little rough on our lines. When you can look into your fellow actor’s eyes and you can feel that, you know, and it was there. So we’re getting excited about that.
AH: What got you to go out for a part in “Oklahoma!”? What pulled you to the footlights?
DL: What pulled me to the footlights was really in high school. My girlfriend — you know how kids are, you have your best bud — was going to try out for a play and she begged me to go with her. And I did. And I got the part and she didn’t, which was really awkward.
AH: So, were y’all not friends after that?
DL: It took a week or two. I think that was “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys.”
AH: Anything you’d like to add?
DL: I just think Theatre Albany is a jewel in this community, and I would encourage people to make the investment in that season subscription. It is so worth it. In fact, I gave season subscriptions to my daughter’s family — there are five of them — for Christmas this year. They got an early Christmas present. ... And I would encourage others to think about that come Christmas.