Hilarious tragedy in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s opener
After spending eight years establishing herself as an actor in Chicago, Mary MacDonald Kerr married, moved to Paddock Lake, Wis., and had a couple of kids. She assumed she would continue her Chicago career, but that proved impossible. In 1995, on a whim, she auditioned for a Milwaukee Chamber Theatre show. The late Montgomery Davis, MCT’s founding artistic director, cast her. After that, Milwaukee in general and MCT in particular have been her professional home. Kerr has acted in 20 MCT productions.
Kerr is directing Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, MCT’s season opener. Henley’s domestic tragicomedy won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and thus is part of artistic director C. Michael Wright’s ongoing survey of past Pulitzer winners (another winner, Driving Miss Daisy, is on the MCT’s season). Crimes of the Heart is Kerr’s sort of play, complex and text-driven. The three McGrath sisters, all a little eccentric and all with problems, reunite in the family home in Hazelhurst, Miss, 1978. Calamitous events, current and remembered, fill the kitchen where all the action takes place. Suicide, stroke, failed careers, domestic violence, dementia are among the topics of conversation.
“Henley was able to negotiate all those topics in a way that’s really funny,” Kerr said, in an interview Tuesday (Aug. 9). “There are some very big comic elements in this play, and we have some very funny actors. But [given the topics] it’s a real balancing act. The comedy has to come out of the situation. It can’t be about people being silly.”
MCT’s McGrath sisters are Georgina McKee (Meg), Laura Gray (Lenny) and Laura Frye (Babe). Karen Estrada, Neil Haven and Jonathan Wainwright play characters who orbit around (or collide with) the sisters.
Usually, playwrights are satisfied with significant change in just one character. Six evolving characters speaks to the virtuosity of Henley’s writing.
“This is a classically well-made play,” Kerr said. “It takes place withing 24 hours, in three acts. People tell stories; it has a Southern Gothic feel to it. It’s more about the shared history of these people than about the events in front of you.”
The play poses challenges interpreters can sink their teeth into.
“Is this a new argument or an old argument? That’s the kind of specific questions we’re asking, and our answers determine whether or not the play works,” Kerr said. “We’re always stopping to ask, ‘What does the character know and how long has she known it?’ It might seem obvious, but it isn’t always. Just two days ago, we had an ‘aha’ moment about a line, when we realized that this was the first time a character made a certain observation out loud. It totally changed the way we play the scene.”
Crimes of the Heart is Kerr’s directing debut with MCT. She has directed five shows for Next Act Theatre and one for Renaissance Theaterworks. Next Act’s David Cecsarini gave Kerr her first directing opportunity, Mercy of a Storm, in 2006.
“As an actor, I was always outspoken in rehearsal,” Kerr said. “I was so bossy anyway, they figured I might as well get paid for it. I felt absolutely at home directing, right away.
“I’ve learned a lot about acting from directing, and I’ve learned more about directing with every show. I’ve learned how diplomatic you have to be with actors. And I couldn’t have articulated this when I started, but I now know that you have to be relentless in telling the story the playwright intended.”
And she’s learned to draw on a lesson Montgomery Davis tried to give her many years ago.
“Monty said to always try to find the positive in a scene, because the audience can only take so much moaning and conflict,” Kerr said. “I pooh-poohed that. Actors love conflict.
“But now that I’m directing, especially recently, I see what he meant. I just want to thank Monty.” She turned her eyes heavenward, and said, “And I want to say, ‘Monty, I’m sorry.'”
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre will preview Crimes of the Heart at 7:30 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Aug. 11) and open it formally at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug 12. The show will run 12 more times through Aug. 28 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Click here for a detailed schedule. Tickets are $15-$40 at the BTC box office, (414) 291-7800, and online.