What's New on the Rialto
by Beth Herstein
"It's 90 minutes on the stage. And, I sing, I dance, I kiss a girl, have all these long speeches. I put a penis on my ear, for God's sakes."
It's around 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and I'm sipping wine with actor Margaret Colin and publicist Shirley Herz. Colin is talking about her part in Triptych, a new Edna O'Brien play currently enjoying a run at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Chelsea. The exchange is pleasant and informal - typical, it seems, of the warm personalities of both of these women. Colin herself is easygoing and friendly, and she enjoys interaction with the public. "There's very little wall in my life. My family is not bothered by anybody. Usually the things people say to my husband [actor Justin Deas] or to myself would make anybody's day." And, indeed, as we left the theater, two women approached Colin and complimented her performance in the show. "We came to see you," one of them said. Colin thanked them warmly, asked if they lived in the area and chatted for another few minutes before parting company.
The show, on the other hand, is not so relaxed. Instead, at 90 minutes in length with no intermission, Triptych is tautly structured and often tense in tone. The play revolves around the wife (Colin), mistress (Ally Sheedy) and daughter (Carrie Speckgoor) of a narcissistic man - Henry, a famous playwright - and the efforts of the women to establish their primacy in Henry's world. As Colin puts it, the premise is not original. "You could grow up in a spaceship and you still would have seen this story before," she laughs. The show is unique, she adds, because of the qualities O'Brien brings to the material: "Edna's use of storms, her mystical elements, her commitment to terms and places, and also her use of flowery language - which you have to use and also make the character a real person." The challenge, Colin continues, is to realize the playwright's unique vision. "It would be easy to dismiss the women's attitudes," she says - to ask, "Why don't they get over it? Why do they hold on so desperately" to the man who dominates their lives? In Triptych, however, the characters must also come across as "smart, funny women" who have the strength and will to "battle very passionately for what they want."
The complexity is there, Colin says, in the writing. Her role as an actor is to draw it out. She finds her character, Pauline, a fascinating one. "She's a very destructive woman with an enormous amount of passion, she's very territorial, and she's done what she needed to do to survive. I hope, though, that people can see the humanity inside of the woman I play. I'm not as clear as Tennessee Williams, who said, 'Nothing human disgusts me' - plenty of things disgust me. But I'm on my way to finding the God in all of us, finding the life force in all of us. And that's what I hope I do when I play this woman."
The reference to religion is typical of Colin; Catholicism plays an important role in her life. She is active in the group Feminists for Life, which opposes all forms of what the group defines as cruelty against women, including not only domestic violence, child abuse and infanticide, but abortion. Feminists for Life has existed since the 1970s, Colin explains, formed by feminists who didn't want their feminism to be defined by their stance on abortion. "Susan B. Anthony and all the early American feminists were all pro-woman, pro-family. They considered abortions a crime of men against women. In the '60s and the '70s, it was changed to [the belief that] having a child that was unplanned for and perhaps unwanted would hold you back. Under all circumstances, though, that can be the case. So, you have to change society, so that it accepts the woman with a child in college, in high school, at an acting studio, and in a law firm." She adds, "It's also the responsibility of the pro-life community to provide services for the mother, and to celebrate the life of the mother and of the child. Not just get that baby born and abandon it."
In addition, and consistent with her religious beliefs, Colin opposes certain forms of stem cell research - "embryonic stem cell research," she clarifies. "This is where my Democratic buddies are letting the ball drop, because they're not noting the difference between embryonic stem cell and stem cell research in general. That would be nice if that were an actual conversation people had."
In a less overt way, her values also affect her choice of roles. She'll play a character regardless of whether she agrees with that character's actions, and she'll act in a movie or show even if she questions its point of view. As she also stresses, she's not prudish in her choices; when one or both of her sons come to see the show, she jokes, their visit will pose a special challenge. "I think there are actually words they don't know in this play. And, if they ask what those words mean, Mommy has to tell them." Nevertheless, she looks for work of genuine substance. As she puts it, "I think that wasting the audience's time on the stage by doing something you don't think has any value is a very large sin. It's completely missing the mark of theater. So, [I do a show] if it resonates to me - whether or not I agree with the stand I'm taking. Like I said, I think Pauline - although I love her - is very inappropriate and damaging to her daughter. I don't really think this play is going to encourage women to be anti-social in any way, but it's going to give them an impression of their strengths."
Ultimately, Colin believes she can convey that strength. "I have a lot to draw on, from portraying so many different kinds of women in the past," she says. Colin has enjoyed a successful acting career since the 1970s, when she played Paige Madison in the soap opera The Edge of Night. She did stints in a few other soap operas, including As the World Turns where she met her husband, Emmy winner Justin Deas, who also performs regularly in the theater. Unlike her husband, who "bankrolls our life doing soap opera," Colin didn't stay in the soaps for long. "Back in the day, they gave us 60 pages a day and they worked us around the clock every February for sweeps. So, no wonder I fell in love with them!"
After around four years acting in soap operas, Colin co-starred in several television series, including Foley Square with Hector Elizondo and Now and Again with Eric Close, and she appeared in several episodes of Chicago Hope as Karen Antonovich, a terminally ill doctor. She has also appeared in numerous films, including such hits as Three Men and a Baby, The Devil's Own (in which she played Harrison Ford's wife), the independent movie Blue Car, and the recent film First Daughter.
In addition, of course, Colin - who is a member of the Actor's Studio - has performed in theater. Her turn as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Broadway show Jackie garnered her a Theater World Award, and she received a Drama Desk nomination for her performance in Manhattan Theater Club's 1989 production of Brian Friel's play Aristocrats. Most recently, she appeared onstage in the 2003 Roundabout revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. For the latter two productions, as for Triptych, the authors were around for the show. "It's always a thrill when the playwright's around," she says. She loved working with Peter Nichols on Joe Egg. As for Brian Friel, she states, "He's a rock. He sees on stage what he likes, and he encourages it and he doesn't interfere. And, he's got a million great stories, and he's as steady as she goes, Joe."
It has been especially interesting for her to meet Edna O'Brien, esteemed novelist, playwright and literary critic. "I've been a fan of Edna's since I was in my 20s," Colin states. "I have books of hers that I bought as a young actress trying to be inspired, thinking maybe I'd purchase the rights and turn them into projects that I could do." She smiles when I ask her to describe the experience of working with O'Brien. "She's a corker, as my father would say. There's nobody like Edna. She's the leading lady in her own life. She's in her 70s, and she's still going out there and producing work. She's here in the theater and she's giving notes to us and to the director; she's very hands on and she's quite a character. Encouraging a woman writer and doing her material and having so much of it that's so rewarding for an actor to play ... I think it's a very rare opportunity."
As for the Irish Repertory Theatre itself, "It's a very intimate space; I'm very happy to be in it." Previously, she notes, she has worked primarily in larger spaces, such as the Roundabout's American Airlines Theater. In a small house, "there's a bullshit monitor. As soon as your voice gets overly theatrical or is not grounded, it just rings out. This close they can hear you." Indeed, the side audiences are almost a part of the show, she states. "The area where they're sitting is lit because they have light spilled from the stage on them. You can see them, and they can see you."
From what Colin can gauge, the response in the audience has been largely positive. Of course, she says, there are exceptions. "The other day a woman waited after the show to see me and tell me, 'From the first word, I knew I shouldn't have been in the theater. I came to see you in particular.' I joked, 'And, then you turn around and say that to me. How nice!' She'd seen a lot of the theater I had done in New York - and she'd even seen me at the Actor's Studio. And, I said, 'That's alright. The show can be not your cup of tea. Did you enjoy it anyway?' And, she said, 'For the most part.' [laughs] So she gave me that much. It's a coin toss, the theater. As an audience member, you have to participate; you have to give back. You can't be unresponsive. And, if you can sit back in judgment - then, we didn't grab you. If we can grab you enough to make the evening move forward like this is something that didn't happen before, the first time you see it - well, then the judgment issue can happen later."
Colin doesn't know what part awaits her when Triptych closes - "I have had only two jobs lined up ahead of time in the 26 years or more that I've been acting," she says - but she looks forward to whatever challenge is ahead. "I've been fortunate with the work I've gotten. From the soaps to commercials to sitcoms to drama to stage, back and forth - it's served me, because I just keep coming out swinging, trying to do my job." For the moment, she's concentrating on Triptych, still trying to bring more nuances to her character. "Pauline's very scared, and vulnerable," she says. "But, I also think she hasn't loved anyone or anything in a long time. And, that's my goal as the show goes to [November] 14th, is to bring more of that onto the stage."
Search What's New on the Rialto