Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman
Over the past two decades, Amy Brenneman has become one of television's most popular stars, thanks to her work on the dramatic series NYPD Blue, Judging Amy -- for which she earned a total of five Emmy Award nominations -- and her role as Dr. Violet Turner on the current ABC hit Private Practice, which has its season finale on Thursday, May 19.

Nonetheless, the 46-year-old actress remains devoted to theater, having founded the Cornerstone Theatre Company. She will star in her autobiographically-based piece, Mouth Wide Open, at A.R.T.'s Loeb Theater, May 24-29. The work, co-created and directed by Brenneman's longtime friend and collaborator, Sabrina Peck, tackles the star's life in Hollywood, her quest for spiritual fulfillment, and her debilitating battle with ulcerative colitis, among other subjects.

Brenneman first presented the piece last summer at The Yard, a small performing space on Martha's Vineyard, where she spends her summers with her husband, director Brad Sliberling, and their children, Charlotte and Bodhi. "I really wanted to do some performing that was not in front of the camera, and I wanted to do a sort of abstract play with some first-person storytelling," Brenneman says about the work's genesis. "And then Sabrina suggested we cover some of the things she and I talked about when I was in the hospital. "

Was it tough for her to tackle such personal subjects? "When we did Judging Amy, it was based on my mother and my family, so I'm used to it," she notes. "And when I started on Mouth Wide Open, I decided nothing was really off-limits, but this is more about my solo journey than my family's role in my illness. In the end, it's not the 'capital T truth' about what happened."

Brenneman admits she was tempted not to do the piece again after its run at The Yard. "I was really satisfied with how it went last summer; it was cathartic in all the right ways," she says. "And I wasn't sure I wanted to talk about this stuff again. But once we got into rehearsals, I was amazed how effortless it was to go there, even if it's not always pleasant. As an actor, you're always aware of hoping to find the truth of other people's words, so it's a gift when you're saying your own words."

Once the actress decided she was ready for another run, she knew that A.R.T. was the perfect venue. "Diane Paulus, the artistic director, is a friend of mine from when we went to Harvard, and I was on the Loeb Stage so much when I went to school there," she says. "Plus, the piece begins with a short film shot by Brad and we could never get it dark enough at the Yard for it to be seen properly."

While Brenneman is looking forward to her hiatus from Private Practice, she loves the gig. "I chose an ensemble piece on purpose, especially after so many years of starring on Judging Amy. I like working with the same group of people every day," she says, going on to heap praise on the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes. "She is an amazing writer, what she does with a crazy random guy with a gun is better drama than most plays. The finale is really great; my book becomes a big problem for the practice and, let's say, a lot of chickens come home to roost. And it's been great really playing opposite Tim Daly this season. It's been a challenge to play a married couple, but I feel like we know each other so well that we have a parallel marriage."

When the show returns next season, however, it will be without four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who has played Violet's colleague, Dr. Naomi Bennett, since the series' inception. "We don't have a lot of scenes together on the show, so it won't be as weird on a day-to-day basis, but I will definitely miss her on a soulful level," she says. "She stayed with me in L.A. for a while and we've had such a great time together. But I, of all people, understand how hard it is physically to be away from your family."