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It's an irony worthy of a Tom Stoppard script: The woman who is possibly the most in-demand actress in Buffalo began life rejected.

Left at the Our Lady of Victory Infant home in April 1966, the 8-week-old child was about to be adopted, but was turned down at the last minute after one couple decided the soft spot on top of her head was too big.

Unfazed, the nuns called the next couple on their list: Daniel and Joan Ludwig of Alden.

"Can you believe they didn't want her?" chuckled Joan Ludwig. "We thought she was beautiful."

The Ludwigs named their new baby Lisa Ann, and all they knew about her biological parents was that they were, in the nuns' words, "musical."

Small wonder, then, that 19 years later the Ludwigs would stand in their driveway, fighting tears and waving goodbye as their daughter pulled away.

Her destination: New York City.

Her ambition: Broadway or bust.

Looking back now, she says, only one thing was scarier than that.

"And that was moving back home to Buffalo."
Lisa Ludwig never wanted to be anything other than an actress. Ever.

At 8, she wandered around her house with a black bath towel flowing from her head, pretending to be Cher singing "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves."

(She would later be compared to the singer, rather unflatteringly, in a review of her portrayal of Mary Magdalene in "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Artpark several years ago. Cher was also one of her first customers after Ludwig moved to New York City and took a job selling high-end jewelry. "I can't escape that woman," she laughs now.)

By 18, having outgrown high school productions, she was playing Mona Kent in possibly the most cramped ever production of "Dames at Sea": at Reuben's Backstage, where the stage was actually smaller than the bar.

Says director Javier Bustillos, now directing Ludwig in "Fit to Be Tied" at the Franklin Street Theatre: "I saw her in it. I met her years later and thought: 'Oh, my God, this young kid played that aging diva? She was incredible.' "

Eventually, though, the thrill of local work couldn't hold her.

"Make it to Broadway" read a line under her Alden High School yearbook senior picture in 1984. It proved prophetic within nine months.

Lisa signed a lease for an apartment at 72nd and Amsterdam. And the Ludwigs signed on for cable TV, so they could watch New York City newscasts to see if life in the Big Apple was really so bad.

Crime-wise, they found, it was not.

But theater-wise, Lisa found, it was brutal.

"Everyone was the star from their little hometown. Everyone had on the same black dress and wig for one audition. Everyone sang the same song. You got 18 bars, and then a thank-you. I was nothing. Nobody."

Topping it all off was this comment, from her agent, during her first month in town:

"You're not a dancer. You're not pretty enough for an ingenue. But you're not old enough to play a character part. Come back when you're 30."

She did not.

By the time she turned 30 -- last year -- Ludwig had long since moved back to Buffalo, having stayed in New York for five years, long enough to do the following:

Land several parts with a cruise ship, and a touring children's theater company.

Get more than a little sick of touring.

Fall in love with a boy almost next door (Randy Kramer, who had grown up on Grand Island and moved to New York the same year she had).

Get married, and then get . . .

"Pregnant? We almost screamed," says Joan Ludwig. "When they said we would be grandparents, we honestly thought they meant a dog. Lisa was the last person I thought would have a child. She was so into her acting."

She was -- but not enough to raise a child in New York City. After much discussion and scrapping of plans to try theater in Florida, Ludwig and Kramer's return home was planned.

And dreaded.

"It was worse than moving away," she says now, reflecting. "I knew no one coming back. I couldn't even get an audition. Alleyway Theatre said, 'Oh, we're not even seeing people now,' and hung up."

Worse, Randy Kramer had begun forming Summerfare -- now the region's largest musical theater company -- and was rarely home to guide her through what she freely admits was the worst era of her life.

"I was on the couch," she says, of a brief trip to therapy that summer. "Life really stunk." "So do some theater, for God's sake," advised the therapist.

And shortly after delivering daughter Cydney, Ludwig began all over again to build a reputation in theater. She formed her own company, FreeFall Productions, and took parts -- and risks -- everywhere she could.

But the one that put her on the map to stay was her company's 1992 staging of "Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune" at the Ujima Theatre loft on Elmwood.

Ludwig, as Frankie, played the part as written: with full nudity for the show's first five minutes, and again later, in the play's key, 30-second bathrobe-opening scene.

It was a brutally honest take. But colleagues and friends expected no less.

Honesty -- at times brutal -- turns out to be one of Ludwig's better-known traits. Directors laud her for it. Her friends all recall being on the receiving end of it. Her husband at times winces at it.

"She demands that honesty of herself, and of others, and she gives it," reflects another actor and close friend Norm Sham, now living in New York City. "Unquestioned honesty, unlimited support."

Oddly, though, she does not, her husband and friends say, give that unlimited support to herself.

"Perfectionist" is a term often used to describe her. So is "own worst critic" and "hard on herself." So are a few other choice phrases she prefers to deliver herself.

"People would tell you I'm pretty opinionated. That I'm a bitch. That I'm an evil, nasty person," she says with a wry grin.

"I am very opinionated," she concedes. "But the rest is just honesty."

Indeed, when taking the stage at the Arties last year to accept Best Actress for her work in "Song of Singapore," Ludwig thanks the audience prettily, then chided them none too gently.

"How many of you even saw this show?" she asked the crowd. "I can count you on one hand, probably." There was silence. She pressed on. "So how can you sit in your seats and whisper about who won for this or that -- most of you don't even go out to see each other's work!"

It is, however, virtually impossible to miss Ludwig's work. She has played the fabulously brittle Joanne in "Company," but also, in 1992, its ditzier-than-ditzy Amy (during which, plagued by pregnancy hyperemesis, which causes continual vomiting, Ludwig would bolt from the stage, fling open a stage door, become ill in the parking lot and dash back for the next scene).

Five days after delivering that baby -- a son, Griffin -- she began rehearsals for a new show.

She changes characters with whiplash speed.

She has been the white-hot sexy Sally Bowles in "Cabaret," but also the daffy Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls."

She has put critics on the floor with her goofiness in the long-running "Kathy and Mo Show," and then left them breathless with her disturbingly frumpy and suicidal Jessie in " 'night, Mother," and the malevolent Ruth in "The Homecoming."

She has been, by her own accounting, smothered, scraped, raped, murdered and left naked on stage with a bathrobe hanging upside down and unable to be slid into.

And, she says, her mouth tightening somewhat at the uncomfortable topic she knows is inevitable, she has done it on her own.

No, she says -- and her husband and others agree to some extent -- she does not get cast in Summerfare productions by her husband solely because he is her husband.

"He'll give her a part if she's right for it," says local actress Syndi Starr, a close friend of the Kramers. "But if she's not, sorry, she doesn't get it. She's like everyone else -- she has to audition."

Plenty of times, Ludwig and Kramer say, she has been told no.

But, the couple says, they have gotten much better at not letting their work spill into their living room -- and not letting their living room spill onto the stage.

"We used to go at it pretty good in rehearsals, a long time ago," Kramer chuckles. "I'd do something wrong at home, and I'd start looking for signs of it on stage. We're much better now."

Too, that Ludwig is in demand elsewhere legitimizes the Summerfare roles she does land.

Almost always to rave reviews.

"Oh, God, I love her," says Tom Martin, who directed her in "The Homecoming," the Kavinoky's 1996 box office smash. "She is, I hate to use the word, a natural."

"She's one of the few actresses in this town who you will schedule a play around, if you can get her," agrees Bustillos, whose open praise seems weightier than others', given his past feuds with Ludwig and Kramer over the direction Buffalo theater should take.

"She is extremely gifted and versatile," offers Buffalo News Arts Editor and reviewer Terry Doran. "She is a very good serious actress, she is a singer, and on top of it, she is brainy. She is smart. And a lot of actors simply are not."

Because she is all of those things, she is also hopelessly overextended with work now.

Two weeks ago, Ludwig took a major step toward being able to pick and choose roles, instead of doing six and seven shows a year -- plus teaching, plus theater advising at Iroquois High School -- in order the help make ends meet.

She signed on for a year of co-hosting the WMJQ (Q102) morning show with Rob Lucas, a job that rouses her from bed at around 4 a.m. five days a week.

She is, and sounds, untrained for it. But it's a new and different challenge, and therefore perfect for her, she says. Though not everyone close to her agrees wholeheartedly.

"I don't know where she gets this energy," worries her mother. "I never had it at 31. And, of course, she is always running."

"She is so thin now, and it's showing on her face," says a colleague bluntly. "What is the rush here, to play all these parts? I just hope she learns to balance."

So does her husband. So does Ludwig herself.

Not long ago, while casting "A Chorus Line," Kramer remarked to his wife that maybe she was ready to play Sheila, whose constant sexual vamping barely masks a deep fear of turning 30.

Ludwig blanched. Sheila? Was she there already?

A few years later, the memory stings just a little.

For she is now 31. Strikingly beautiful. But still 31. She acknowledges that years of tanning and stage makeup have left her looking older than that -- though others shrug that she seemed this old even at 18.

And she doesn't like any of this, at all.

"I am at the optimal age, I think, to get parts. But I'm also starting to play someone's mom, and I am a little scared about that," she muses over a diet soda at the Bijou Grille.

"You know, if you're a good doctor, you'll work forever. But in theater, that's just not the case."

Other directors in town groan in annoyance to hear it. "Oh, c'mon, that's silly," says Martin. "Look, she's a consummate professional, and in crossing over into maturity -- she'll hate me for saying that -- she'll have better roles. So what if she's not a blushing ingenue? Her best roles are ahead of her."

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