15 January 2012

Please Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington

Christina Haag as Viola, with Adrian Hernandez as the Sea Captain.
Twelfth Night, Production Workshop, Brown University, 1982.
Directed by Robin Saex Garbose.

Actors aren’t like other people; they’re always acting. So goes the conventional wisdom, anyway, and to some it’s quite handy.

So you broke up with your girlfriend? Blame it on her acting talent! “Oh, you know, she’s an actress,” you can say; “She was always changing, never herself, so artificial, constantly pretending. I never knew where I stood with her, and I couldn’t tell what she was really thinking.”

Nobody will call you on this — nobody will dare to suggest that maybe you didn’t understand her because you’re not terribly perceptive, or that you’re certainly not as well connected to your emotions as any decent actress really must be to hers (even to the point of excess). And rest assured that nobody will tell you that you didn’t deserve a girl like her in the first place. So long as you speak in truisms universally accepted, you can delude yourself forever.

Ann Harada as Christmas Eve

Returning to New York and reuniting with friends who just happen to be actresses, I have found reassurance in the very unchangeable nature of their changing art. This isn’t to say that they aren’t better actresses now than when I knew them in college, but that — contrary to what people say — they are less changed in spirit, and perhaps more authentic, than many other women of my acquaintance.

Where is the girl I used to know? She’s right here, doing what she has always done. And that makes everything seem somehow right.

Jennifer Van Dyck, with Charles Busch in The Divine Sister

Christina Haag has been getting so much attention as a writer — not least for Come to the Edge, her tender account of her love affair with John F. Kennedy, Jr., which has just been released in paperback. Indeed, the fact that she writes so beautifully came as something of a revelation to me, and if she ever turns to fiction, I intend to become jealous and quite unpleasant about it.

But I knew Christina first as an actress, and so it was a providential gift to find her onstage again, a few months ago in New York, in Sharyn Rothstein’s drama, The Invested. She portrayed a driven financier with such natural grace that she had me believing that she might have succeeded on Wall Street, too, in real life. (Christina quickly but gently disabused me of that notion after the show.)

Christina Haag in Sharyn Rothstein’s The Invested
New York, 2011

Before The Invested, I hadn’t seen Christina in something like 20 years. She’s a grownup now, and yet she’s still the poised, almost ethereally beautiful girl I used to know. When our friend Robin Saex Garbose directed Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at Brown, I was Christina’s Orsino, and playing opposite her really raised my game. Looking into her eyes, I wanted to be the Orsino she imagined.

She’s the last girl I ever kissed onstage: I guess it’s just as well that I quit while I was ahead.

Christina as Viola, with WVM as Orsino.

There’s a lot to be said for the fulfillment of a promise, and in seeing a woman do what she was meant to do, your own destiny may seem more secure. Just last night, I missed hearing Ann Harada performing the songs of William Finn in Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series, darn it, but I’ve had the joyful experience of seeing Ann a few times elsewhere recently, including her annual tour-de-force, Christmas Eve with Christmas Eve.

For the moment, let me emphasize that Ann throws her Christmas Eve revues together in only a few weeks, with minimal rehearsal. Her instincts, her training and experience, her talent and her prowess as a performer are such that she can pull off such feats of skill and daring, where any mortal woman might fail. What’s more, her heart (the shows benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS) makes the effort necessary to her. But even as a girl, in musical comedies at Faunce House, Ann was signaling already that some day she’d be capable of exactly this magic.

Art isn’t easy: Ann Harada with WVM,
following December’s annual Christmas Eve extravaganza.
She pours herself into these performances, as you can see.
Photo by Anne Balcer©

I barely suspected that I’d see Jennifer Van Dyck when I went to Charles Busch’s farce, The Divine Sister, in 2010 — but there she was. Even though she was playing (alternately) a little boy and an older woman, she, too, was entirely the girl I remembered: lovely and funny and smart. In conversation, I always had the feeling that she was three or four lines ahead of me in the dialogue, as if she had privileged access to the full script, whereas I was just reading sides. Her mind works that quickly — and her wit shines through when she’s onstage, just as it always did.

Now Jennifer is appearing in a new play, Cate Ryan’s The Picture Box, with the Negro Ensemble Company, at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row through January 29. Promising the story of a black couple’s relationship with the daughter of the white family they work for, the play is evoking memories of my own relationship with Bessie Pullam, even before I see the show. I’m looking forward to it. (For more information, click here.)

Jennifer Van Dyck

I’m conscious of context here. It’s possible, for example, that actresses without the brains and accomplishment to get into Brown aren’t as estimable as these three women. It’s possible — indeed, probable — that Christina, Ann, and Jennifer would be just as extraordinary if they’d studied molecular biology or worked in real estate. And yet the combination of circumstances here strikes me as resistant to debate — and worthy of celebration.

In a too-changing world, these women are not merely stage stars but pole stars, and we’d be fools not to be guided by them. The next time you meet an actress, consider yourself lucky.

Christina as Viola, with Andrew Weems as Malvolio.


Anonymous said...

I've rarely been called dense, but could you explain the title of this post to me?

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

The title begs to differ with Noël Coward, who memorably asked Mrs. Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage. But clearly, Noël Coward was not a Brown alumnus, and I am no coward.

Anonymous said...

what is the name of the production company that featured your last picture - Viola and Malvolio ?

William V. Madison said...

The last picture is from Robin Saex's staging of Twelfth Night at Production Workshop, Brown University's student-run theater, in 1982.