Directed by Jonathan Lynn, the production co-stars Olympia Dukakis and George S. Irving as Beatrice and Alvin, Jess's mother and father. Cox says that the opportunity to work with Dukakis was one of the main reasons why she decided to do the play. (When she met with her Academy Award-winning co-star before rehearsals began, Cox asked her what drew her to the script. "It's both funny and cruel at the same time," responded Dukakis, "and I found that an attractive challenge.")
That the play ventures into underrepresented dramatic territory also appeals to Cox. "You find many more plays about fathers and sons," she says, "but it's hard to portray the emotional life, the complex relationship between mother and daughter. It's inherently volatile and inherently pathetic. Barra has managed to make it humorous. I'm not sure how she succeeds, but she does."
The conflict within A Mother, A Daughter and A Gun has to do with the dysfunctional ties between Jess and Beatrice. "A large part of it is the daughter coming to terms with having a life outside of the mother," says Cox. Yes, a gun does play a significant role in the action -- "but it doesn't do away with the mother-daughter relationship," Cox reports. "It's brought into the play for another reason, and then it shows up in many hands."
According to Cox, both she and Dukakis drew from their own personal relationships in crafting their performances. "She has a daughter and I have a mother," quips the younger actress. "Olympia has great range, and we both really bring ourselves and the depths of our emotional experiences to the work." Such commitment has resulted in a rather intense rehearsal process. "In order to get to the truth, it's not all nice," says Cox. "We both know how to fight it out as actresses, and we enjoy that. It's not something we're afraid of." Offstage, the women are able to relax and enjoy each other's company: "We walk away arm in arm after we've plunged into the depths of hell. We're both into organic wine, so we've shared several bottles!"
As for the veteran Irving, his role in the play is mainly to serve as peacemaker between wife and daughter -- but this is a rather dangerous position. "He gets raked over the coals, too," says Cox. "I don't think anybody in the play escapes unblemished."
Cox began her career as a dancer with the Washington Ballet Company but she felt the desire to speak as well as move, and so her 97-year-old dance instructor encouraged her to explore other possibilities. "She said she had told this to only one other person in her life," relates Cox, "and that was Shirley MacLaine. So I thought, 'I'm in good company!'"
On her 21st birthday, Cox moved to New York City. She appeared in the 1986 Broadway musical Smile but her big break was the Roundabout Theater Company's 1995 revival of Company, in which she gave a Tony-nominated performance as the hysterical Amy. "The most surprising thing about that show was that, although it was a musical, it opened up doors for me to do more dramatic work," says Cox. "I think people saw that I could actually act as well as sing."
Since then, she has worked steadily, appearing on Broadway in Neil Simon's The Dinner Party and in such Off-Broadway shows as Freedomland at Playwrights Horizons, A Question of Mercy at the New York Theatre Workshop, and Last Easter with the Manhattan Class Company, for which she received a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actress in a Play. Her most recent Broadway stint was as Rose in the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change, which she describes as "the greatest experience of my life so far in terms of value to the world at large. It spoke to people and was the most theatrical, moving piece I've ever known -- a great achievement for everyone involved."
Earlier this year, Cox reprised her role in the Los Angeles production of Caroline; and, last month, she received an Ovation Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. (The awards ceremony will take place on November 14.) "I feel like one of the luckiest actresses alive to be part of these last few projects," she says.