[Editor's note: The Exonerated will resume performances on Sunday, November 4 at 3pm and 7pm.)
Marg Helgenberger in Macbeth. Marg Helgenberger in August: Osage County. Marg Helgenberger in Balm in Gilead. While none of those marquees have ever been lit, the Emmy Award-winning actress has had theater in her bones for over 30 years. But TV fame and motherhood have essentially prevented her from doing any serious stage work until now as she takes on the role of wrongly convicted death-row inmate Sunny Jacobs in The Exonerated, being presented by the Culture Project at 45 Bleecker.
"I was about to graduate from Northwestern University and my plan was to make a life doing Chicago theater. There were so many good companies there; Steppenwolf was just beginning to burn up" says Helgenberger. "I was doing a summer production at Northwestern of The Taming of the Shrew; I was playing Kate, and Bruce Norris [now known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park] was my Petruchio. There was this talent scout from ABC Daytime in the audience who came up after the show and asked me if I was interested in doing soap operas. I didn't think anything would come of it, but two weeks later I got the call, and almost immediately, I was on Ryan's Hope. I was happy that I didn't have to be a waitress."
She became an immediate sensation as Siobhan Ryan Novak, staying on the soap for four years, but the long days of shooting left little time to do more than the occasional staged readings for companies like MCC Theater. And soon after, Hollywood beckoned, leading to 25 years of constant TV and film work, including her Emmy-winning role as K.C. Koloski on ABC's China Beach, Donna Jensen in Erin Brockovich, and, most notably, an award-winning 12-year run as Katherine Willowes on CBS' hit series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. (She also married actor Alan Rosenberg in 1989, and the couple -– now amicably divorced –- has a 22-year-old son Hugh.)
The latter series has given Helgenberger the financial freedom to pursue a life of her choosing, and returning to theater is at the top of her to-do list. "I feel like I'm sort of reconstructing my life, and I hope this is the beginning of me finding more plays to do in New York," she says. "I know there are so many people with have more theater experience, so it's been a little bit of challenge to have some producers open up to me. Even my agents asked when I was last on stage. I think they're afraid I don't know how to move on a stage. And that's been frustrating."
As Helgenberger notes, it's not that she hasn't had the opportunity to come book to the footlights. "While I was doing CSI, I was offered some shows in New York. But that was too hard to do logistically. Our hiatus was only two months and I don't think our producers would have accommodated a longer absence. And frankly, I was exhausted at the end of the season. We shot lots of nights, and having a kid, I wasn't sleeping-in like a lot of the cast."
But it was more than just the chance to get back on stage that excited Helgenberger about doing The Exonerated. "I was very inspired by the play. I think I read when it first opened that Janet Reno said it was the strongest piece ever written against the death penalty," she says. "It's just tragic these people were convicted and spent years on death row for crimes they didn't' commit. And I'm thrilled to be playing Sunny. I asked Bob Balaban, our director, a lot of questions about her before taking the part. One of things that Bob told me she was a good student in high school until she discovered sex! But what so impressed me is that after being in solitary confinement for so many years, she changed her own views of feeling sorry for herself. She chose life instead of hopelessness."
The subject of capital punishment has long interested in Helgenberger. "When I was doing CSI, I would often come to producers with various ideas, some of which were turned into episodes. And one of my ideas was to do an episode about capital punishment," she recalls.
"Now while I believed most cops and criminologists probably believe in the death penalty, based on what they see every day, I wasn't so certain that Katherine would. I expressed this to our headwriter, and they accommodated me so the language in the script was vague. One reason I felt this way was when I was filming something years ago, I had lunch with this woman who was the warden in this Florida prison, and she was against the death penalty, in part because she dealt with so many minority inmates who had terrible defenses because they had no resources."
Since leaving CSI earlier this year, Helgenberger has been indulging in causes and hobbies, both old and new – traveling abroad, hosting political fundraisers, meditation, and supporting breast cancer and multiple sclerosis causes (diseases that affected her parents).
Plus, she's finally letting her musical side come forth. "I'm finally learning to play the guitar, both electric and acoustic," she says. "I love Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Jack White, the Black Keys –- even U2. American and Irish music, wouldn't you know?"