An actor rarely gets an opportunity to recreate a role. My good fortune is to have accomplished this several times before the recent production of I Remember Mama, so I feel blessed. Earlier in my career I played in Brighton Beach Memoirs, A little Night Music and Company with three different companies all across America. But the chance to do I Remember Mama again was unique in that we had most of the original cast and the original director. Revisiting the script after a two year hiatus with the same wonderful actors was a special treat. We bring the same truth, but a second look offers a deeper, wiser and more confident work ethic to the script.
As always, the play’s the thing. And starting with the first workshop, the ten women (playing 25 roles!) marveled at the beauty of the text. John Van Druten has written a story that is timeless. The family that lives in 1910 San Francisco could easily be found in 2016 New Jersey. The needs, struggles and fears have not changed, and the deep love that motivates a mother to make her children feel and be safe have not changed. I never felt the tale to be romantic or sentimental, just true. In my real life, I have raised four children and it was a pure gift to bring my own truth to the four children in our story. The fact that Mama and Papa are Norwegian immigrants is very exciting for today’s society to look at. Marta’s pride in being an American citizen is so beautifully developed in the writing.
The importance of our production came from its’ unique casting of ten women, all over 65 years old, bringing 25 characters to life! Most of the actors played two or three characters from children seven-years-old to old men to boys to young women and more, often jumping from one character to the next with only two or three lines segue. The amazing experience was the audience acceptance of our interpretations. Without any specific costumes (we all wore modern personal outfits so as to not place us in real 1910-1920 time), and without any specific gender, the story came to life for the audience be within five or ten minutes of playing. With more than 500 years stage experience between the ten actresses, we were able to let the script live in a completely original way. It certainly opened the discussion to continue with more all female companies for future projects!
The wonderful rehearsal experience was totally based on respect. The potential of ten divas bringing their opinions to bear never happened. I was always quite moved to watch each woman willing to listen, negotiate, learn from each other. Perhaps it’s easier to be “grown up” when one is really “grown up,” but we never fought. We were just able to do the work.
My own challenges in portraying Mama came from having to be conscious more than ever of my health. Doing eight shows a week in your late 70’s requires a strict regimen of sleeping, eating and daily rehearsal. But being able to create Marta’s world every day was worth it. Today the majority of roles that are being written for older women are dementia based, so to have an opportunity to create a fully developed woman in her fifties with the many problems and joys of raising a family is a special gift to an actor.
It was challenging that the two productions played to very different audiences in completely different spaces – i.e. an open extra large rectangle in Greenwich Village (2014) and then a thrust proscenium at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey. But that’s the wonder of acting the same text with the same cast and realizing the truth of the human condition that Mr. Van Druten has written speaks in any environment….the play is the thing.
Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson. For more about Two River Theater Company, click here.