By David Kennedy
Associate Artistic Director
Recently, with rehearsals for The Year of Magical Thinking fast approaching, Maureen devoted a bit of time to answering questions put to her by Westport Country Playhouse Associate Artistic Director David Kennedy.
I understand that when you were the understudy for The Year of Magical Thinking, when it debuted on Broadway, you went on in the part a number of times. Why did you want a chance to revisit the role?
It was a privilege to be part of the original production and watch Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Didion bring this piece to life. I still have all the notes given by Joan during the rehearsal—the cuts, the changes. When I went on for Vanessa, it was like being shot out of a cannon. Of course, I had sufficient rehearsals, but I was flying by the seat of my pants. No time to stop and think. Now, revisiting it five years later, I’ve been able to explore so much more and have fallen in love with it again. I look forward to playing it for consecutive performances and learning from each of the audiences.
You’ve had such an interesting and varied career, and have tackled some the most extraordinarily difficult parts—Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Ophelia come to mind—but I wonder if there’s something especially taxing about a one-person show. Can you tell us a little bit about the special challenges involved in being the only person up there and how you prepare for them?
Yes, I’ve played a wide variety of roles. Having just spent ten blissful months in a company of twenty actors touring the world, this is going to be quite a singular experience. An inspiration to me is my mentor and friend, Julie Harris, who spent so many years playing solo performances. I expect it will get a bit lonely out there—no one to make eye contact with or share a laugh with or to help me if I lose my way. Then again, no one will be there to corpse if I make a horrendous mistake. Though maybe Annie Keefe [Playhouse Artistic Advisor and assistant stage manager for the production] in the wings will be there to keep me on the right track. It is a one person play, but there are other characters with me.....John, Quintana, the many people she encounters on this journey.
Have you ever worked with the director Nicholas Martin before? What do you particularly enjoy about collaborating with him?
Ah, Nicky, where do I begin? Met him in 1974 when I was working at the Guthrie and he came to visit some of the company. Flash-forward to NYC in the early 80's. A production of The Man Who Came to Dinner at Circle in the Square. One of those great APA inspired casts; Ellis Rabb, Carrie Nye, Leonard Frey, Peter Coffield, Nicholas Martin. What a group. And it was during this production that Nicky introduced me to his old pal from Carnegie, Frank Converse. And then two years later he was Best Man at our wedding. Needless to say, Uncle Nicky has been part of our family ever since. We have a short-hand of references that can send either of us into gales of laughter at the mere mention of certain actors or events. He also brought me back to acting after a hiatus, with The Sisters Rosensweig and Third at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.
The Year of Magical Thinking might seem forbidding to some given the great loss endured by the character you play. What, if anything, would you say to those who may be feeling a little intimidated?
As Joan Didion says in the play, "What were we afraid of?" We go to theater to learn, renew, be challenged, hear stories, feel hidden emotions, listen to brilliant language. In fact, Ben Brantley just had an article in the Times on brilliant language in plays. Well, Joan Didion is one of the masters of sparkling language. She is also one of our greatest twentieth-century American authors who influenced legions of young women with her articles, observations on American culture, essays, and novels. Just repeating the titles evokes a time that immediately comes to life again. Play It as It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, and of course this masterpiece. To hear her words and go on her journey, audiences will certainly be moved. We go to plays again and again, to learn something new, hear things in a new way. We've seen Hamlet or Lear again and again. In fact, seeing Christopher Plummer's Lear the second time, I was awestruck hearing things I had never really heard before. And I played Regan in Lear at the Guthrie. I guess what I' m trying to say is that one needn't be fearful about seeing a play that has great sorrow. It doesn't keep us away from a tear-jerker movie, a Greek tragedy or overblown opera. Why should we be afraid?
Theater has always been my home and safe place. I have enjoyed the characters on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, The Equalizer and One Life to Live, but am not as comfortable in front of the camera as I'd like to be. When I walk onto a stage, whether a small intimate house or the magnificent amphitheater at Epidaurus with an audience of 12,000, I know I belong there.
You recently completed a world tour with the Bridge Project, a cooperative venture between American and British actors that has seen a number of exciting productions of Shakespeare that have played in London and New York, as well as other cities around the world. How did you get involved with them, and what was it like to work with such a gifted interpreter of Shakespeare as director Sam Mendes?
The Bridge Project. What a gift for an actress. Especially at this point in my career and life. A collaboration between the Old Vic in London and BAM in New York. The challenging idea of Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey. Put together a company of ten American actors and ten British actors, perform some classics, and then tour the world. I met Sam Mendes last February, was hired, finished Driving Miss Daisy in New York, and flew to London to play Richard III's—Spacey’s—mother, the Duchess of York. I think because an American was playing Richard, Sam decided that his siblings, Clarence and Edward, and his mother must be played by American actors. Lucky us. Working at The Old Vic was more than a dream come true. As a student at the University of Michigan, I had wonderful professors who would go to London every summer and bring us reports of glorious theater, brilliant actors, divine inspiration. So, I didn't have to think too hard about going. And then Greece, Hong Kong, Spain, Naples, Istanbul, Singapore, Beijing, Doha, San Francisco, Sydney, Brooklyn. Take Shakespeare around the world, and see a few sights while you're at it. Wow! Add to that a most wonderful company, and it was truly a high point of my theatrical career. We're still sending emails across the pond. Strong friendships and miraculous memories.
What’s the one project you've been dying to do your whole career, but have yet to find an opportunity to do so, and why?
I am constantly surprised by my next job or offer. I haven't spent much time wishing and hoping. Living in the present seems to work best. Although, I have never done Chekhov. That’s a hint to Mark [Lamos].
My first play in Westport, called Real Estate, was in 1986 with my husband, Frank, and my dear friend Colleen Dewhurst. Not a particularly good play, but, during the run, Frank and I went to a real estate open house in Weston before a Sunday matinee. Twenty-six years later, we are still in that house.
Click the art above for more information about our upcoming production of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, on stage at the Playhouse June 12-30.