It's a daunting prospect, coming back to the stage after a prolonged absence. For Sarah Jessica Parker — a multi-award-winning, internationally renowned star of a television series that defined a generation — the pressure was on. Not only was Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola the first theatrical job Parker took on in 12 years, but it was an untested play receiving its world premiere via the esteemed off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club (at New York City Center - Stage I).
It's easy to see why the piece would be attractive to an actress of Parker's caliber. Her character, Becca, is a juicy one: the grown daughter of a Madoff-like businessman and his possibly complicit wife (played by Blythe Danner), who must come to terms with her family's situation. Not only that, but it was the opportunity, after 18 years, to reunite with Danner, an actress whose praises Parker is elated to sing; the two had last appeared onstage together in MTC's 1995 production of Sylvia.
As her extended and extended-again run in The Commons of Pensacola comes to a close on February 9, TheaterMania chatted with Parker about her off-Broadway return, her offstage love of her onstage mama, and her own family's place in dictating the jobs she takes.
What was it that attracted you to the piece and the character?
The challenge of it every night — trying to figure out a person who seems rather uncomplicated, who proves very quickly to be not only very complicated, but in real despair…rudderless, at sea, lost, and really perfecting the sort of mediocrity that is pretty paralyzing.
You have a long history with Manhattan Theatre Club. How does it feel to be back performing on one of its stages again?
It's wonderful. This is the fourth time I worked there. I did my first play there in 1978. Obviously I have affection for [Artistic Director] Lynne [Meadow] and [Executive Producer] Barry [Grove]. I've had successful experiences there and less successful experiences there, but I certainly feel that it's a home of sorts.
The concept of this play seems very topical — ripped from the headlines, even. But then it delves a lot deeper.
I think the headlines are a mere jumping-off point, they're really rather peripheral very quickly. In many ways it's really less related to headlines than to familial complexity. What it's about is a mother and a daughter. How do parents love and how are children disappointed by that love? When do we recognize our own complicity in our disappointments? At what age do you step into adulthood and no longer have the opportunity? Coming to terms with favoritism in a family. I think that's what people connect to in the play. They enjoy the conversation of what would you do? But what we find most impactful is the despair, and the attempts at love that are missed. That's what we hear people blowing their nose over every night.
You and Blythe have such a palpable chemistry on stage, and you've worked together before, at MTC, on Sylvia. How did you go about forming a mother-daughter bond?
We didn't plot any path. I really wanted her to do this…I just love her. I begged her to do a table read just to consider it. I hold her in very high regard. When I did Sylvia, I genuinely fell in love with her. When she left — she couldn't extend — and when that play was extended, on the first day she was gone, I literally turned upstage and was just weeping, missing her. A lot of people who play opposite each other and have to illustrate love don't love each other. It's not our job to plot out how to be affectionate; we're supposed to tell the story and whether or not we feel that is immaterial. It just so happens we do. [laughs]
What have the audiences been like? I know a lot of young people who don't usually see theater who have gone to see the play, owing to your being in it.
We've had really wonderful, generous, very demonstrative audiences. Lots of people of all different ages from all over the world have been coming. We have people who've said to us, "I've never seen a play before." People with wonderful accents from Australia and Peru and Scotland and Germany. Some of them have made the trip to see the play and built a week around it. The [show] plays differently at night because they're a different audience. [But] I'll say this about the seniors [audience members]: They have kept that theater alive and I'm enormously grateful to their dedication. They're deeply committed, loyal, and thoughtful. I'm really delighted with the audiences we've had to play for.
Do you think that performing off-Broadway is a less pressure-filled environment than, say, if you were doing this on Broadway?
I think I have felt an appropriate amount of pressure because the role is so challenging. I don't know that I would have distinguished it differently from one venue to the other. The pressure one feels about the role is the most important thing. Not the pressure — the challenge of fulfilling an opportunity. I think I like the fact that we were on this stage, so we could extend. They wanted to move the play to Broadway but there are no theaters available at this late date that would be suitable. It's a little disappointing for us, because it's such a marvelous piece and it seems to be making such a connection with audiences. But I don't know that it would be different one way or the other. The pressure that I put on myself seems as pregnant as it could have been. [laughs] I don't know how much more pressure I could have felt elsewhere.
If they came to you next season and asked you to move with it to Broadway, would you?
I don't know how all that works...I wonder about momentum. Also, we all have these other things that were obligated to. Getting everybody back together might be complicated.
Has this experience whet your appetite for more stage work?
This was extraordinary, and I have loved it, even at my most terrified moments. But it has been challenging for my children. I've been gone at times they've been very accustomed to me being with them. It sounds like not a big deal but it has proved to be a big deal for them.
They're young, that's understandable.
My son is much more circumspect about it, but my daughters who are four-and-a-half are not particularly amused by my absence. Every time it's been extended and that date has changed on the calendar has been a little bit of a hardship for them. I have to think about that. Movies and television are slightly different, because you can shoot during the day and be home at night for bedtime. Bedtime is really important to them and it's important to me. So I have to figure it out. I would certainly like to and I've just recently read another great play, but I have to think about how it fits into my family's life.