There's a lot to find startling in Lisa Kron's new play, "The Wake," set mostly in a claustrophobic Manhattan apartment during the George W. Bush administration. Close friends grapple with issues of global politics, liberal guilt, race, class and privilege.
The lead character, Ellen (Heidi Schreck), torn between two lovers — one male, one female — steams up the Kirk Douglas Theatre stage in frank love scenes with her lesbian partner.
So why does a comparatively tame revelation — that Ellen's 56-year-old friend, human rights worker Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), has a male lover — routinely draw gasps from the audience? Suggesting that a middle-aged single woman might have a sex life seems to come as more of a shock than the rest of the story, says Leigh Silverman, the play's director.
Presenting this unexpected side of Judy displays one more facet of a character who already seems to have more layers than an onion. But while Judy is complicated, one thing has seemed simple to Kron, Silverman and more recently the critics: The woman for the job is veteran character actress O'Connell, whose face is perhaps more recognizable than her name.
Connell's recent appearances include a role in Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" at Playwrights Horizons, in which she performed with Schreck; her long list of regional theater credits includes appearances at the Los Angeles Theater Center, South Coast Repertory and La Jolla Playhouse.
Jay Reiner wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that "O'Connell's cynical Judy is a strangely compelling character." Times' theater critic Charles McNulty praised O'Connell's "delicious deadpan" and heralded her as "a treasure of the off-Broadway theater scene."
Says Silverman, "I think part of what's hard about the role of Judy is that you can't have any vanity, you have to be unapologetic; there is a freaked-out-ness about Judy that has to be just under the surface … you need someone who understands both the theatricality and the humor of Judy but also has that really intense undertow."
In giving Judy a lover, playwright Kron, openly gay and proud of the six strong female characters (to one male) that she created for "The Wake," offers her own surprising revelation: that she pandered to society's gender biases to ensure that audiences would take Judy seriously.
"I thought the most potent way for the audience not to dismiss her is for her to be having sex with a man," Kron says bluntly. "There is something really screwed up about that, and perverse — but I thought, they are not going to take this woman seriously unless she's sleeping with a man, that she has some sexual currency with men."
For her part, O'Connell — who really is 56 — loves portraying Judy, a woman with a "hollowed-out heart" who has given so much as a Third World relief worker that she's got little left for herself and those around her. "I think that happens a lot to relief workers — they are uncomfortable when they come home," she says. "This place is very disconcerting when you've been around a certain kind of distress."
At the same time that she relished Judy's acerbic humor, O'Connell also struggled with the reality that she has not borne witness to the same kind of human tragedy as the character she plays. "She says, ‘I don't know how to let go of my rage' … the first couple of times I said it, I felt like, ‘I'm not big enough to say this. I don't have a right to say this,' " O'Connell says.
Offstage, O'Connell has lived in the same East Village apartment for almost three decades, now with her boyfriend of 15 years, Alan Metzger, who jettisoned a career as a TV and movie director to run a public high school that prepares students for Hollywood careers.
"It looks just like the apartments in [ New York's] Tenement Museum; it has a bathtub in the kitchen," she jokes. She spends her spare time as a visual artist, doing paintings and collages on wood, inspired by Chekhov's plays. "Not scenes from the plays, but things that the plays evoke for me," she says.
O'Connell spent about six years in Los Angeles in the 1990s, doing TV ("L.A. Doctors," "Second Noah") and film ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") because she "just got tired of being so broke" — but has since returned to her roots as a creature of the stage.
"I feel like for women of a certain age, it's just going to go in a bad direction in the movie and television industry; it's just a fact," she says with a throaty laugh.
"I was thinking about that with Judy … just in terms of equipment. I have this 56-year-old face that actually can look like I have jet lag, am hung over and have been in Guinea for nine months. If I'd had a lot of plastic surgery, this face might not do that so well.
"It's wonderful when I come across a part where this equipment that I have is the right equipment."