AS TOM WINGFIELD in "The Glass Menagerie," the final work in the Kennedy Center's four-month "Tennessee Williams Explored" series, Jason Butler Harner recites some of the best-known lines in American theater. During his first Kennedy Center engagement, however, he was relegated to just one: "May I show you to your seats?"
The New York-based actor began his theatrical career 16 years ago as an Eisenhower Theater usher. "Oh yeah, it's a glamorous world," says the 33-year-old actor. "We wore those bright red jackets -- and that's not an attractive shade of red."
Harner got the ushering job as a recent graduate of Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School. "I was a 17-year-old usher, so I was quite the oddity there," he says. Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" was playing in the Eisenhower at the time, and the comedian had strict rules regarding the seating of late arrivals. "People would come down and, because I was just a kid, they'd say, 'I didn't pay all this money to stand up,' " says Harner. "I was finding my feet at that stage, and I'd say, 'You didn't pay all that money to be late, either!'
"More than once people went down anyway and she stopped and embarassed them -- in a good way. They weren't humiliated, but they should have been."
Though Harner has made the transition from aisle to stage, he says ushering instincts can be hard to shake off. "I tend to know how a theater is laid out," he says. "As an audience member, I just want to get my program and sit down."
Harner, who earned a BFA in theater from Virginia Commonwealth University, says his pursuit of acting was not a sure thing; he got into VCU under the wire after other plans fell through. Having let his college correspondence accumulate for weeks in a large cardboard box, he opened the drama department's offer one day before the acceptance deadline. "I said, 'I guess this is what I'm doing,' " he recalls.
As he tells it, chance played a similar role in his graduate work at New York University. "I auditioned on a complete whim at the last minute," he says. "I didn't realize how competitive it was or how good a program it was because I just didn't know anything."
These days, Harner's resume makes it harder for him to claim ignorance. Career highlights include Shakespeare in the Park with Alec Baldwin and Angela Bassett and a stint opposite James Cromwell in Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love." He has also ventured beyond the stage. "The television and film that I've been doing lately has been exciting," he says. "But you're more in control on stage, and I love the stage for that reason. It's very present and alive and immediate."
Part of that thrill is working with actors like Sally Field, Harner's "Glass Menagerie" co-star. "She's all that and a bag of chips," he says. "Basically she's just so grounded, there's no ego there. She's phenomenally honest and she works hard -- she's one of the hardest-working people I've ever worked with. I've been very lucky, working with all these smarties." Harner has high praise for the rest of the cast as well. "There's so much love in this company, I'm sure some of it is because we're playing children and mothers and things. . . . The play is so intimate that it would be a whole other experience if you had people who just wanted to stay by themselves and do their job."
"The Glass Menagerie" closes Sunday, and Harner starts rehearsals for a New York Theater Workshop production of "Hedda Gabler" the following day. "I'd love to come back to the Kennedy Center," he says. "The renovations they're doing are amazing -- I can't wait for them to do the Eisenhower. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful, but it's ready for some primping."
As for that red coat, Harner has left it far behind -- for the most part. "I'm still in fear of that moment when the lights go down and there are six people arguing about where their seats are," he says.