On Tuesday, the theatre world lost an amazing presence. Sonja Lanzener passed away and left the world a little darker. I loved Sonja before I even met her. Her husband, Paul, was a guest artist in the first show I stage managed as a grad student at U of A. Not only was he the perfect picture of professionalism, he was just a super-nice guy. We talked a lot and he told me all about his wife, who was also an actress at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where he was a resident artist. She sounded like fun and I couldn't wait to meet her. Fast-forward to 6 months down the road, when I became a production assistant at ASF. Sonja ran over and immediately introduced herself on my first day, saying Paul had told her all about me and how well he thought we'd get along. A friendship was born.
My favorite memories of Sonja are from the time we were doing HOLIDAY MEMORIES, a play based on the childhood memories of Truman Capote, complete with Thanksgiving AND Christmas stories. Sonja played "Miss Sook," Capote's cousin who raised him. She brought a charm and warmth to the character that only she could. Her humor as well as her heartbreaking sincerity were truly something to behold. I remember an especially quick prop handoff she had to do between two scenes. The first time she tried it, it didn't work, so I volunteered to help her. I also brought her a cup of water. You would have thought I'd presented her with a bottle of Dom Perignon the way she thanked me. Sonja, like me, was a natural caretake, and if you looked out for her, you'd better believe she'd look out for you. We got that prop handoff down so well by the end of the run that we eventually made it into a little dance to entertain ourselves. There was also a part where I had to hand off an artificial Christmas tree to Sonja and another actor, who entered with it through an aisle in the audience. They'd run offstage, around to the lobby, grab the tree and trot down the aisle. Sonja was already muttering about that stupid tree by the time she came into my line of vision and didn't stop until she burst through the door, immediately snapping back into her jolly character. I laughed my head off at her every night.
During that same production, Paul was leaving town for several weeks to work at a theatre up north. Sonja did not have a drivers' license, so she had to get one in order to tote herself around town while Paul was gone. I'll never forget the look of pride on her face the day she came into rehearsal jingling her keys and had us all go out to the parking lot to see the fuzzy dice Paul had bought for the rear-view mirror of her Subaru.
Over the years, Sonja and I talked about everything: healthy living, making it in NYC, teaching, being a good friend, being a woman in the arts, making a marriage work when you're in theatre (she could have taught a seminar--she and Paul worked together their entire marriage), food and so much more. On every two-show day, she and I would go to Siagon Deli, where she introduced me to some of my favorite meals to date.
The last time I saw Sonja was in NYC in 2006. I'd been talking to one of the women in the chorus of the show I was doing and it came up that I'd worked at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. She said, "Wait...then you must know Sonja and Paul!" I said, "Of course I do!" and she said, "I was the maid of honor in their wedding!" A reunion was set right that very minute. We called Sonja after the show and told her we were reserving her a ticket for the next week and to plan on staying for dinner afterward. I was waiting for her at the stage door that afternoon, as she appeared with tears streaming down her face. I thought she was just emotional from the show (it was a tear-jerker), but she grabbed me, put me in one of her famous bear-hugs and said, "I'm just so proud of you! Look at what you're doing!" It was one of the most humbling moments of my life, having this woman I idolized tell me I'd "done good." We all went out for a nice dinner and spent several hours laughing and sharing stories of the past and present.
Sonja and Paul went on to teach at Cornell University, where I used to work, for three years. They were absolutely perfect for those jobs and I can only imagine how many lives they both touched during their time there.
Whenever I remember my grad school days, Sonja will always be one of the first people who springs to mind. Her unabashed joy, her ferocious spirit, her thoughtfulness, her passion for her work, her deep love for her husband, her incredible performances in so many shows and her countless words of wisdom regarding the theatre and life in general will always stay with me. May she rest in peace, surrounded by the love and legacy she leaves here on Earth.