LAURA: I started acting in a community theater in Hawaii as a teenager, and that was quite a joyful experience, so I was eager to repeat it. And when Paul posted his famous “Hyde park needs a community theater. Do you agree?” posters I had recently started acting again, so it seemed like kismet. When you’re doing a professional play with actors from around the city, you don’t necessarily become friends and work with them again (though I’m lucky enough to have a couple of those). But in community or school theaters, you have a group that does many plays together, and it’s wonderful to share the pride of creation, and the nostalgic stories.
Q. When did you know that you wanted to be an actor? What was your first professional acting gig?
LAURA: I think I wanted to be an actor since I was a little girl, but generally felt foolish admitting that. It’s like wishing for a pony—it seems a little juvenile, and not what the smart girl in class would choose to do. But the truth is, there’s no other work that gives me as much pleasure as theater. I am totally hooked, and somewhat regret the 10 years I didn’t act in my late 20s and early 30s (the end of the romantic lead years—think of all the roles I missed!) I sort of had my first paid gig in Portland, Oregon when I was 21, doing a John Synge play. We got these official contracts promising a stipend, but then ticket sales were bad, and they never actually paid us!
Q. Are there special challenges involved in performing in a living room? Does the intimacy of the space change the way you approach the role?
LAURA: This is actually my 2nd time performing in a living room; I worked with Oil Lamp theater a few years ago, and at the time they performed in a condo in Lakeview. It was really fun. It is a bit strange having the audience so close, but being able to have your smallest expression visible, not worrying much about being seen or heard—these are just gifts to an actor. In such a small space, I think it’s important that our emotional scenes be subtle; Stanley Kowalski yelling “Stella” would feel like assault to an audience 3 feet away! But this play is perfectly chosen for the experiment. The stakes are high, but the volume isn’t.
Q. Donald Margulies has chosen sort of an interesting relationship to build this play around. Ruth and Lisa start out as strangers and become mentor and protegee; they’re not family, they’re not romantically involved, and at least initially, they’re not friends. What are some of the things that you’ve discovered about the mentor/protege relationship over the course of rehearsing this play?
LAURA: I really don’t know much about the mentor relationship—it’s not one I have experienced. I do have older and younger friends (one of the things I love about acting), and I’ve learned from both, but not a one-on-one relationship centered on teaching. I know this is a very important relationship in science, so was interested in seeing it among artists. I’m curious to find out if it is common among writers at our talk-back on the first Sunday!
You’re right; it is a very interesting relationship to build a play around. Ruth and Lisa are cerebral characters, who really argue about ideas. The relationship begins as an intellectual association, in which their admiration of each-other’s talent is paramount. Their love grows out of that admiration, and the pride they both take in the work Lisa creates under Ruth’s tutelage. And I think this really is a love story—a doomed one, possibly, as so many of the best are.
Q. Where do you think Ruth is, emotionally speaking, when Lisa first appears outside her window? Has she been waiting for someone like Lisa for a long time? Does this relationship come as a complete surprise to her? Do you think she’s been through all this before with other students, or is Lisa her first/last real protege?
LAURA: Ruth is a totally intriguing character. She can describe her memories, feelings and hopes with such clarity, but she still lacks some emotional self awareness. She doesn’t know her life is lacking anything at the beginning of the play. She is respected, has lots of famous friends, and a rich, rewarding career, but I think she is also profoundly lonely. She doesn’t have anyone in her life important enough to answer the phone for.
She tells us that she looked for the special student in each class, but none of her previous relationships approached the depth of connection she finds with Lisa. In Ruth’s heart, I don’t think Lisa is just her protege; she’s her beloved daughter, with all the beautiful complicated mess of love, guilt, envy and longing that implies.
I think Ruth’s need for deep connection is driven by her recognition of mortality. The Ruth who ends this play is not the strong artist and teacher we meet in the beginning. She needs Lisa’s friendship almost desperately, which makes what she views as Lisa’s betrayal hurt even more.
Q. Ruth does talk on a couple of occasions about her relationship with Delmore Schwartz, but one has the sense that there’s so much being held back. Is it important for you, as an actor, to fill in those gaps in your own mind? Do you know more about that relationship now than what Margulies gives us?
LAURA: I am thinking back to my young loves, and realizing I don’t remember them that well! When we reminisce, there are the real memories, but there are also the stories we have told ourselves about our past. After 30 years, the stories might be ascendant . . . especially for a consummate storyteller like Ruth. I also tend to agree with Lisa, that a young, naive Ruth might not have really understood her own relationship with Delmore. Ruth saw him as a tragic hero. Is she holding back, or has she just unconsciously edited through the years to make the best story? So I guess the answer is no, I’m not adding to the character background Ruth gives me—just examining it carefully. After all, what matters isn’t what actually happened, it’s what Ruth believes.
Q. This play is set in the 1990s, and it’s interesting to me that some of the topical stuff in it is still relevant now. We’re still talking about Woody Allen, for instance. Do you think this relationship would work out differently if Ruth and Lisa were meeting each other for the first time in 2018, instead of in 1990?
LAURA: I totally remember that shocking Time magazine article about Woody! I think our audience might feel a little differently about him in this particular Me Too moment. But back to the wider question, i think the big difference in eras is about gender. Ruth’s powerful bond with Lisa happens in part because Ruth doesn’t have children of her own—she acknowledges as much. Women who reached the top of their professions in the 1980s or 90s really did feel they needed to choose between career and motherhood. Read any feminist play of the era, and you see that struggle. That dilemma is hardly solved now, but there are more options. For instance, for women in intense careers who haven’t found the right partner, there’s way less judgement if they choose to raise a child alone. And if Ruth were 30 in 1993, she might have done just that. If she had her own child, Lisa might just have been a dear student, rather than the person she shared her deepest secrets with.