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THEATER

Taking a more vulnerable turn

S. Epatha Merkerson steps back from her get-tough `Law & Order' persona to star in `Come Back, Little Sheba.'

June 24, 2007|Irene Lacher | Special to The Times

SOME people would consider S. Epatha Merkerson the most fortunate kind of celebrity there is -- an anonymous one.

The "Law & Order" star can ride the New York subway next to junkies of NBC's long-running and seemingly ubiquitous procedural crime show, and even though they know that they know her, they may not know why. "Hi, there," they say. "Hey," she says back. Two days later, it hits them that they've had a brush with intrepid police Lt. Anita Van Buren.

So it was remarkable when Merkerson was pelted with pointed hellos during a recent trip to New Orleans to shoot "Girl, Positive," a Lifetime film about teens with HIV. As she and a producer crossed the French Quarter on their way to the wrap party, a steady stream of police officers shouted out to her, "Van Buren!"

Then the pair passed several women standing in a doorway. "They were like, 'Stop, it's Van Buren!' I said, 'Hey, girls, what's happening?' I get recognized by ho's," Merkerson, 54, throws back her head and guffaws. "It makes you realize how many people watch the show and from what varied kinds of professions."

The veteran actress' vibrant and earthy sense of humor sets her apart from her dour screen counterpart, but both women are strong presences who could coexist comfortably. Not so the incarnation of Merkerson who will take the stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre today as the aging, disillusioned Lola of William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba." Lola is trapped in a long, airless marriage to the alcoholic Doc, played by Alan Rosenberg. Jenna Gavigan appears as Marie, the young boarder whose nubile presence challenges their fragile relationship.

"The character is diametrically opposed to me so I wanted to see if there was that kind of character in me," she says. Merkerson has just emerged from a long day of rehearsal. She's casually dressed in a teal silk blouse and a new pair of jeans, the denim laurels of losing the 40 pounds she gained on national television after she stopped smoking in 1993. Under her conservative, short-cropped "Law & Order" wig, she sports a flurry of dreads that makes her look much younger than her small-screen alter ego. Still, she has Van Buren to thank for being there. "Sheba" director Michael Pressman asked Merkerson to take the role after they worked together on an episode of "L&O" two winters ago.

"When Michael brought it up, at first I thought, 'I don't know if I can play this part,' " says Merkerson, who had seen the 1952 film with Shirley Booth in the Oscar-winning role. "I wasn't certain where this person was. Is she slow? Has there been arrested development in this character? Van Buren is so sure of herself and Epatha is sure of herself, and this character isn't. Will I be able to find the parts of myself that are like this character to make it come alive?"

Later, Pressman explains how Merkerson impressed him when he directed a rare episode that featured her character -- the detectives' boss who's usually stuck back at the station -- out in the streets solving a crime. "She so elevated the material in her work," he says. "There was a kind of profound emotional depth that I have not seen with many actresses. Soon after that I did a reading of 'Sheba' in New York. The big problem was, who do you get to play the part of Lola? What actress has the range and depth and naked honesty to pull off a role that is a tour de force onstage for two hours? I thought of Epatha."

He e-mailed her asking if she wanted the part. She e-mailed back: "Hell, yeah."

In casting the best people for the two leads, Pressman's colorblind production adds a new dimension to the play -- a racially mixed marriage. (Bruce Davison, initially cast as Doc, withdrew because of a scheduling conflict.) But the director says he didn't intend to make a comment on race.

"Michael just thought it would be a good role for me to play, but we did have lots of conversations," Merkerson says. "Should Doc be white? Should Doc be black? Should Marie be white or black? He said, 'Leave me alone. Let me cast it.' It will take whoever sits in the audience to decide if they're going to accept who we are as characters, as a man and a woman who are struggling in their relationship, who are trying to hold onto each other, who need each other, who are afraid of the future."

Storming the award scene

FOR a while last year, Merkerson seemed to be everywhere. Her bravura performance as the uber-mom to a boarding house full of lost souls in the 2005 HBO film "Lackawanna Blues" led to a breathless run of awards, including a Golden Globe and an NAACP Image Award (she also won one for "L&O"). When she picked up her Emmy that year, the acceptance speech she'd tucked in her bra was plastered to her chest. "I'd had so many hot flashes by the time we got into that room that my undergarments were soaked," she recalls with a howl.

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