The "S" in S. Epatha Merkerson could easily stand for strong, given the roles this powerhouse actress usually plays -- from her Emmy Award-winning turn as Nanny in HBO's Lackawanna Blues to the central characters of the plays F...ing A and Birdie Blue to Lieutenant Anita van Buren on NBC's Law & Order. So it's been a quite a challenge for Merkerson to tap into Lola, the unhappy, passive housewife at the center of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba, now at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theater.
"She is extraordinarily fragile, and so I've had to find places within me to play this character," says Merkerson. "But I think just in living my life and being in my 50s, I have had moments of vulnerability that I can tap into and sustain -- at least for the period of this show. Perhaps the biggest challenge for me is how alone she feels even though she's married. I've had relationships and I know that you can feel lonely even while you're in them."
Merkerson was quite familiar with the play before she took the job. "I'm a huge fan of the film. I've seen it many times -- not knowing it would ever happen to me," she says. "And every student of theater knows Inge. I just recently began reading his biography; his life was so tragic and tortured. He was totally successful when you think about his work, but it just wasn't enough to fulfill him."
She may also be the first African-American woman to play the role professionally, but she downplays the color-blind casting. "These days, our eyes are attuned to interracial couples, so when people sit down in the theater, I don't know if it poses an issue to them. Or they may see it as an issue initially, and then they groove into the story," she notes. "I talked about it with our director, Michael Pressman, at the beginning of rehearsals, and we decided we'd focus on the character and let the audience make their own judgment. What was more important to me is that Michael said he wanted a good actor for the part."
Speaking of good actors, Merkerson adores her co-star, Alan Rosenberg, who plays her alcoholic husband, Doc. "We've made such a great connection. The only bad thing I can say is we sat right next to each other in this one scene in the movie Breaking Through, and he didn't remember me at all. So I torture him quite a bit about that," she notes. "Oh, and Alan has a photographic memory, which I absolutely hate. I'm in menopause and my memory is working on overtime as it is."
She's also working much harder than she does on L&O. "I'm offstage about two minutes, not counting intermission, which is the other side of the world than playing Anita, where I get to go to my dressing room between takes," she says. "I love that job. It's allowed me to live in New York, which is my home, and I still get to do other things." Indeed, Merkerson recently filmed a few episodes of the hit TNT series The Closer and will shoot a new movie with Tim Allen before starting the new season, which will once again feature a number of new cast members. "Right now, I am the longest-running character on the show, and there are many worse things in life than that."
Most actresses are lucky if they get to play Mama Rose in Gypsy even once, so the brilliant Karen Mason is blessed to be tackling this amazing part for the third time in a surprisingly good production at the Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford, New York. And she's the first to admit her prior experiences -- most notably, headlining the show's production last summer at the St. Louis Muny -- were a big plus in crafting her current portrayal of the stage mother of them all.
"I've really had a year to let Rose distill, and she really makes a lot of sense to me," says Mason. "Because the rehearsal period at the Muny was so short, I hired someone to work on the script with me before that production. Rose has a lot of soliloquies -- she does a lot of talking -- but the script is so logical. The key to me is when she says at the end, 'I always wanted to be noticed.' I can relate to that. I was a middle child and a fat kid, so singing was my way to get attention. But Rose had to take her own path. Also, when I did the show in California many years ago, Gypsy Rose Lee's son Erik Preminger told me that Rose could charm and bedazzle anyone, and I've always remembered that."
Mason is equally thrilled to be working with actor Rick Hilsabeck, who plays Herbie. "When I lived in Chicago, Rick was a big star as part of the Hubbard Street Dancers. I'm so excited that I can now put on my resume that I've danced with him," she laughs. As for the rest of the cast:."It's really a lovely group of people to be on stage with; they're a lot of fun and they have a lot of integrity."
After the run concludes in early August, Mason has a few projects on her plate, including a cabaret stint at Palm Beach's Colony Hotel in November and finishing up a new CD. Plus, she already has her sights on her next big theater role. "I want to do Mame," she says.
IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME
Looking for a little something to do to get out of the heat? Phylicia Rashad and Ruben Santiago-Hudson will be among the guest readers at Ed Bullins: Tales of a Literary Gangster at the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center on July 1. Jim Dale, Daniel Gerroll, and Roger Rees will headline a free staged reading of Don Juan in Hell at the Williamstown Theatre Festival on July 2. Erika Rolsfrud will star in Theresa Rebeck's solo play Bad Dates at the Two Rivers Theatre Company in Red Bank, New Jersey, July 5-29. Drama Desk winner Michael Cullen will headline Penguin Rep's production of Orphans, July 6-29 in Stony Point, New York. Mark Nadler, Rebecca Pitcher, and Kristine Zbornik will headline Love Changes Everything, a benefit concert at the Triad on Sunday, July 8.
Looking ahead, Legally Blonde co-star Kate Shindle will kick off the New Provincetown Players Monday Night Concert and Performance Series in Provincetown on July 9; that same night in New York City, the Public Theater will offer a free staged reading of Winter Miller's In Darfur at Central Park's Delacorte Theatre. The Vineyard Theatre will offer three free performances of the controversial play Voices in Conflict, July 11-13. The New Jersey Opera will perform Die Zauberflote, The Pirates of Penzance, and Roméo and Juliette during its summer season at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, July 15-28.
As the creators of such unusual theater pieces as The Donkey Show and The Karaoke Show, Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner are used to thinking outside the box. Their newest work, Turandot: Rumble for the Ring, which begins a four-week engagement at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on July 10, combines wrestling, the story from one of the world's most beloved operas, and a jukebox full of opera hits with rewritten lyrics. But one thing you won't be hearing is anything from Turandot itself. "It's not in the public domain, so we couldn't use it," says Weiner. "But that's okay. I always feel I can make any music work."
Weiner's inspiration for the piece wasn't the opera, per se, but his lifelong fascination with wrestling. "I always watched it on TV, but I always wished it could develop more compelling characters or a better storyline, so that it was more than just violence," he says. "By using the myth of Turandot, we show how violence can get healed into love."
The pair conceived the show as a rock opera, which led to an unusual audition process, says Paulus, the show's director. "We made everyone sing to a karaoke CD. The men got to choose 'Living on a Prayer' or ' You Shook Me All Night Long,' and the women had to sing 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot.' We figured if they couldn't handle that, they weren't right for the show," she says. "Then, we made all the actors whose characters had to wrestle practice for an hour with our fight director, Rick Sordelet. When we came back into the room, they were smashing chairs and hurling themselves against walls."