PORT TOWNSEND — With her girl-next-door smile, Amanda Steurer does not immediately evoke Lady Macbeth.
Yet on three August weekends in Chetzemoka Park, she steps inside that evil woman’s skin, to become the driving force in “Macbeth,” Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy.
Should you hear her backstory, though, you’ll see why the Port Townsend native has seized not only this role, but also the helm of another dark and bloody tale to be told here later this year.
Steurer and the rest of “Macbeth’s” cast brought the audience to its feet on opening night Aug. 5; they’re back on stage tonight and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 19, 20 and 21.
And for Steurer, 35, this is a homecoming, a decade and a half after she appeared in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” one of Port Townsend’s first Shakespeare-in-the-park productions.
“Dream,” of course, is considerably lighter fare than “Macbeth.” Steurer was 19 back in 1995, and enrolled in New York University’s theater school.
While earning her bachelor of fine arts degree there, Steurer studied at the prestigious Stella Adler Studio in Manhattan, and learned from guest speakers like Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Langella and Sidney Poitier.
She completed her theater degree in 1998, got herself a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side, and set about building an acting career.
She got roles here and there, but life was not easy. It was, in fact, a tenuous several years.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
Steurer, 25 at the time, remembers the World Trade Center terrorist attacks like they were last week, not 10 years ago.
“I was on my way to acting class. I turned on the radio,” she recalls. “It sounded like ‘The War of the Worlds’ was going on.”
“Don’t get on the subway,” the radio and television announcers warned.
The events of 9/11 proved to Steurer how insecure her world was, and how life can change in an instant.
She decided it was time to find some kind of security, the kind that comes from steady work.
Steurer went into the restaurant business, where she became quite a success. Mario Batali hired her to work in his New York City restaurants; she was part of that glamorous milieu for a good eight years.
She then opted for a big change of scenery and went to Maui, to serve as maitre d’hotel at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.
This line of work is very much like theater, Steurer says. Restaurants are replete with improvisation and atmospheric effect. She revels in the various dramas that play out over an evening.
“When I would open the door,” she adds with a smile, “I would say, ‘Curtain up.’”
By summer 2008, Steurer was ready for a visit to her hometown. She made the trek from Hawaii back to the Olympic Peninsula, planning on three months among family and friends.
It’s been three years now. So what happened?
“Theater happened,” she says, flashing a bigger smile.
This was against all expectations. Steurer, fully engaged in the hospitality industry, had decided to give up acting.
“There were little knocks on my door,” she remembers. “But I said, ‘No, that’s not me.’”
Instead, Steurer returned to restaurant work. After years in Batali’s and Puck’s high-pressure world, she remembers, she just wanted to bus tables at a local restaurant.
She found work at the Silverwater Cafe, the elegant spot beside the Rose Theatre on Taylor Street. She became the manager, and still considered her performing career to be over.
But then, in fall 2009, she was asked to do a staged reading of “An Affair on the Edge,” at the Paradise Theatre School in Chimacum. Artistic directors Erik and Pattie Van Beuzekom cast Steurer as “the Irish hussy,” as she puts it.
Right after “An Affair,” she took a solo sojourn to Spain for 10 days. Waiting for her upon her return: a half-dozen voice mail messages from Port Townsend’s theater community.
Denise Fleener of Key City Public Theatre, for one, wanted her for “Scrooge: The Musical,” Key City Public Theatre’s big holiday show in 2009.
“I kept saying, ‘No, no, it’s not who I am anymore. I run a restaurant,’” Steurer remembers.
But Fleener “left me with no room to say no. She was fierce about it.”
Steurer played Isabel, the young fiancee of Ebenezer Scrooge in his dream of Christmas past — a turn that would portend a new version of the actress’ future.
After “Scrooge: The Musical” came roles in Key City’s 2010 Playwrights Festival and in the Anton Chekhov drama “The Seagull,” also at the Key City Playhouse. Then she was asked to direct “The Prisoner of Second Avenue,” Neil Simon’s black comedy.
Steurer pours herself into these productions, blending her New York education with her devotion to the place where she grew up.
As a girl she took violin lessons, dance lessons, acting workshops — all thanks to her parents, Warren and Anne Steurer, who provided encouragement as well as transportation to them all.
And as Steurer plunged back into theater in 2010, she continued working at the Silverwater, holding down the full-time job as so many thespians do. Steurer credits Denise Winter, Key City Public Theatre’s artistic director, for making it all possible.
“Denise said, ‘We’ll make this work.’ I love that Key City has that attitude, of giving people a place to express themselves,” while they balance work and families.
Winter, for her part, says the community benefits from the fact that so many trained artists — “and Amanda is at the top of this list” — choose to live here, even as they must earn their living outside the theater.
It’s not easy to schedule rehearsals and performances around the cast and crew’s various day jobs, Winter adds.
“I could say it’s too difficult to work with them. But then I would be denying [audiences] of this talented actor or director we have in our midst.”
Steurer is a consummate professional, “so she can juggle. She is fully there in rehearsal,” as well as completely present at her other workplace.
After “Seagull” and “Second Avenue,” Steurer served as costumer for last Christmas’ “The Little Match Girl” and this spring’s “Garden of Monsters,” before winning the role of Lady Macbeth.
And as “Lady M,” as she calls her, Steurer utters some of the juiciest lines in literature.
“Unsex me here /And fill me from the crown to the toe topful / Of direst cruelty!” comes at the beginning, as she conspires to kill Scotland’s King Duncan. Then it’s “Out, damned spot . . .” near the end, as the now insane Lady M is unable to wash her hands clean of imagined bloodstains.
This is no story for the faint of heart, but it’s one that must be told, Steurer says. Ambition — and the way it can go very far wrong — are part of the human experience, after all.
Which is why she wanted the role. The key is finding a way to give Lady M her own stamp, even as she feels reverence for the actresses — Dame Judi Dench, Vivien Leigh to name two — who have played this role before her.
Steurer’s next big project is a fitting followup. She’ll direct Sy Kahn’s “Dracula” at the Key City Playhouse Oct. 6-30.
“I like a challenge,” Steurer says. She also likes a complex story.
“I’m not a vampire person,” she adds. But Count Dracula has enchanted her. The director has learned plenty about how vampires, long before the “Twilight” and “True Blood” sagas caught fire, have been part of our cultural history.
As Steurer began her research with reading Bram Stoker’s book, she relished the exploration of “animal versus logical,” and that strange phenomenon of life everlasting.
“What kills a vampire is loneliness,” she’s learned. And if you live for 400 years as these bloodsuckers do, you outlive everyone who understands the era you came from.
How does an immortal creature, a being with no predators, move through the world? What if you’re not afraid of dying? Such questions fascinate Steurer.
As she prepares for “Dracula,” Steurer looks for the truths embedded in the story. It’s that thirst for deeper things that makes her an extraordinary director, says Erin Lamb, who played Edna in “The Prisoner of Second Avenue.”
“On first reading, I didn’t care for the character,” Lamb admits. To her, Edna seemed like a bitter nag.“Amanda persuaded me that there was something else there, something I could relate to,” she adds. Steurer urged her to “look for the love” in the character. And so Lamb did discover that Edna’s soul held maternal love and devotion — thanks to Steurer’s guidance.