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Actresses Find Their Way Into `Heart'

Monday, February 25, 2008

By SEAN O'DRISCOLL, Associated Press Writer

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NEW YORK — 

The biggest acting role of Lily Rabe's life ended with an abrupt thud. During a rehearsal for her role as Babe in a revival of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," a piece of the set fell on her during a pivotal, life-or-death scene.

Rabe tried to laugh it off but within hours, she found it hard to breathe and she had a pain in her side. Staff at the Laura Pels Theatre sent her to the hospital where doctors told her she had a fractured rib.

"I was devastated," she says. "There were some tears. It's not like we're doing `Phantom of the Opera.' You just don't expect the set to come crashing down on you."

She was laid out for over a week, while her understudy, Jessica Cummings, found herself on an unexpected path to a leading role in the Roundabout Theatre Company production.

"About 15 hours after Lily was injured, I was sitting in the hairstylist's chair getting dyed for the first time in my life," Cummings recalls. "When Lily got injured, I wasn't sure how to feel; I was at once afraid for Lily's health, terrified, excited, nervous and I felt oddly lucky. As an understudy, you long for the chance to perform, but definitely not as a result of someone being injured."

Rabe lay in bed, reading and rereading the script.

"It kept me focused," she says. "It was my way of saying I'm still in there, I'm still learning. Of course, I was reading magazines as well, but I was in constant contact with the cast to keep myself motivated."

The accident was also a serious blow for actress Kathleen Turner in her directing debut. "It was shocking and quite avoidable," Turner says without revealing how the accident might have been avoided. "Oh, come on! You know I can't talk about these things just now."

Turner has strong praise for Cummings, who was understudy to both Rabe's wounded Southern belle and her loud, socially aspiring cousin, Chick, played by Jessica Stone.

"Jessica (Cummings) did very well," says Turner, "but she's still not Lily Rabe."

In the first act of the play, Rabe's character, Babe, shoots her much older husband because she "didn't care for the look of him," which brings her dysfunctional Southern family together to support her.

Rabe plays up her character's Southern sensuality, slinking across stage, her slow drawl dragging out vowels while her defense lawyer, played by Chandler Williams, grimaces with repressed lust.

"She walks as I imagine Babe, with this slow, sexy slump," Henley says. "That kind of walk is something you can only capture on stage, never on film."

"Crimes of the Heart," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981, is "a celebration of strong female spirit," said Henley, in a soft Southern accent that might have come from one of her plays. It's set in 1974 Mississippi, as each Magrath family member awaits Babe's trial while battling individual torments and disappointments.

Lenny, played by Jennifer Dundas, is dowdy and shy, her longing for love overcome by a painful reserve. She is taunted by Meg (Sarah Paulson), who fled to Los Angeles to find fame only to end her career working as a clerk in a dog-food factory.

All three sisters are haunted by the death of their mother, who committed suicide and took the family cat along with her.

Dysfunctional Southern families have long been explored on stage, but the cast avoids any easy comparisons to Tennessee Williams or others.

Dundas sees "some merely external comparisons" between her character Lenny and Laura in "The Glass Menagerie," as both characters wait for gentlemen callers to come and rescue them from crippling shyness.

"My internal experience of the characters if very different. It may seem that they are both sad sacks but Lenny is more a fighter and has a layer of protection that Laura could never have," she says.

Musing on character background is a waste of time for Turner, who wants her actors performing, not backstage discussing their motivation. Some cast members say she's a very exacting director.

"I'm afraid that's true and it's only getting worse as I get older," Turner says with a laugh. "I never intend to hurt but I will tell the truth. I feel it's the actor's job to build up the back story. My job is to find what's on the page and tell that story."

So is Turner a joy to work with it? Rabe, Paulson and Dundas break into laughter simultaneously. "Let me say this," Dundas begins. "Kathleen is ..."

Her long pause brings another round of laughter from Paulson and Rabe.

"No" says Dundas. "Wait. I didn't know what to expect from Kathleen. I wasn't expecting the mother-earth type but maybe someone more nurturing. She's very much a tough-love kind of director. She doesn't coddle feelings at all. Not one bit."

The direct approach, says Dundas, can be a refreshing change from some directors' exhausting discussions about motivation and background. "Sometimes, it can go on for weeks and its blah, blah, blah about your motivation. I might not be as gusty in my choices if the director is reading the character for me."

Without Turner's direction on character motivation, Paulson turned to her partner, Cherry Jones, the Tony-winning star of "The Heiress" and "Doubt."

"Advice from Cherry is more valuable than from anyone. I'm very sensitive to what she thinks and once I get past that initial 'Grrrrr, I'm being told what to do,' it's incredibly helpful because I really trust her," she says.

Paulson, best known for playing prim tutor Miss Isringhausen in HBO's "Deadwood," insists, like Dundas, that Turner's lack of sentiment has added an edge to "Crimes of the Heart."

"There was no time to second guess and overanalyze. However Kathleen got to the end of the journey, she got there. And despite everything, she got us there, too," Paulson says.

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