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E.R. Star Laura Innes Beats The Heat in New York Stage and Film's When the Lights Went Out

Innes shares her thoughts on appearing in Mozhan Marnò's new play about the 2003 East Coast blackout.

It's been a long time since Laura Innes appeared on stage in New York City; 15 years, she approximates. There's a good reason behind that: She raised two children and starred, for twelve seasons, on the hit NBC medical drama E.R., picking up multiple Emmy nominations and a few Screen Actors Guild Awards along the way. But now Innes is back on stage, a few miles away from the Big Apple, appearing in Mozhan Marnò's drama about the 2003 East Coast blackout, When the Lights Went Out, at New York Stage and Film's Powerhouse Theater at Vassar. On a sweltering morning, we chatted with Innes about this play and what it's like to return to the theater after such a prolonged absence.

Laura Innes
(photo courtesy of the production)

Is it as hot at Vassar as it is here in Manhattan?
We're luckily in air conditioning almost everywhere we have to [be]. I took a long walk this morning [and] it's just so freaking hot. Just stay hydrated. I'll be your surrogate mom and tell you to stay hydrated.

My real mom e-mailed me and said the same thing.

So you started performances earlier this week. Are there previews leading up to an official opening?
We started performances on Wednesday. There's no such thing as previews here; they don't really have an official opening. We've done two shows and we're on our way.

Were you on the East Coast for the blackout in 2003?
No, I live in Santa Monica on the West Coast, so I don't have any interesting stories. Some friends came last night and they have parents who live on the Upper East Side. They were moving into their apartment that day, and the movers [caught a wire] in the basement when the blackout happened [and the power went out]. My friend's mom actually said "I was so relieved when it was the whole East Coast!" [Laughs]

Who do you play?
I play a character named Diana. There are sort-of three storylines that are interwoven. The character is a woman in her fifties who is a lawyer…about to retire…They have a very tragic family history. The first thing you see is my character, Diana, and her cleaning lady, who is from Iraq. That's the first scene, then you piece together information to create the story. Then the husband arrives, who is played by the wonderful Cotter Smith, and slowly, slowly these events happen. You see the character Diana find letters…She begins a conversation with her husband and all hell breaks loose for those two. They go from being rather contained to the night of hell and then back again. It's quite a beautiful play. The writer is very talented, and it's her first play. She was an actress.

I love brand-new plays by brand-new writers. They seem very fresh.
I do think she's quite something. She has a certain freshness to her. Sometimes, when someone is naturally gifted at something, it's better that they haven't been schooled in it because they don't edit their impulses. She's a super-smart chick, and she lived through all the parts. They're very fully realized. You can imagine her walking around the room acting them out, and acting them out well.

How did you get involved with the production?
They just called me and I'm not sure why! I said, "Why are you interested in me?" The director, Kate [Whoriskey], was very knowledgeable about what I had done on television and on stage previous to my television career. I was reassured that she knows who I am; she's choosing me for the specifics that I bring to it.

Is this your official "return to the stage"?
Let me tell you the trajectory. I went to Northwestern and started out in Chicago. I worked there, very happily, and loved it. Then I did a David Mamet play called Edmund that went to New York, and I moved with it, and then I ended up staying. I'm not really one of those "take-it-by-the-throat" kind of people. I did get an agent and feedback to say that I could be competitive here, as well. Then, I have a son, who's now twenty-three, and when he was born, my husband and I moved to Los Angeles and were pragmatic. We gave it two years and said we'd move to Minnesota where he's from and do something else. And then it started working for both of us. When my son was five, I got E.R. And I directed a lot but I didn't do much theater. I adopted a daughter from China ten years ago, so that kept me homebound, and television work is very family-friendly. In the past few years, I've gone to Sundance and New York to do workshops, but this is my first actual play in— I won't even tell you how many years.

Does it come back to you? Is it in your muscle memory?
It does. I will say that a week before I came out here, I was terrified. I come to New York a lot and I see a ton of theater; it really is where my heart is. But I was just in a panic. What was I thinking? I just was really scared. I said to my husband that The Actor's Nightmare — the Christopher Durang play — was going into my head at every moment. When I got into the room and opened my mouth, I was like, "okay." Rehearsing was fantastic and it is a wonderful group of people. I can't say enough great things about Kate and Mozhan.