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INTERVIEW: The Good Wife's Mary Beth Peil Plays The Morini Strad

The popular actress discusses her new play at Primary Stages, along with her work in Follies, and her hit CBS drama. logo
Mary Beth Peil
(© Tristan Fuge)
To paraphrase an old cartoon saying, Mary Beth Peil has savoir faire and she is everywhere. The versatile actress -- who began her career in opera before taking Broadway by storm with her Tony-nominated performance in the 1985 revival of The King and I -- is currently starring Off-Broadway as classical violinist Erica Morini in Primary Stages' production of Willy Holtzman's The Morini Strad at 59E59 Theatres.

As soon as that play concludes its run on April 28, she jets off to Los Angeles to reprise her role as Solange Lafitte in the musical Follies, which will have a six-week run at the Ahmanson Theatre starting on May 3.

In addition she continues in her recurring role as the meddling Jackie Florrick on CBS' hit drama The Good Wife, and recently guest starred on the popular web series Submissions Only. TheaterMania recently spoke to Peil about these projects.

THEATERMANIA: Your character in The Morini Strand was a real person, wasn't she?
MARY BETH PEIL: Yes, but when I first did an informal table read of the play last summer, I thought she was a fictional character. So I was intrigued to learn she was a real person, even though many people never heard of her -- even violinists of a certain age never heard of her. She was a real force during her lifetime; she even played like a man. But some people were offended by her chutzpah. She died at age 95, and lived as a recluse for the last 20 years of her life.

TM: And the story you tell in the play is based on truth as well, right?
MBP: Yes, there was this robbery where someone not only took her beloved Stradivarius violin, but her private papers, which included music with notations -- some of which went back to people who had played with Brahms. When I read the play, I was so struck by the authenticity and the way the characters talk about classical music.

TM: Was it easy to research her life and work?
MBP: No, I had to keep digging. In fact, just the other day, I got an email from a friend whose father had played with her. And luckily, some live concerts were just re-released by this obscure CD company -- and with remastering, you could really hear her playing. But because this is a theatrical event, I don't feel restricted to look like her or talk like her. And even better, I have permission to be cranky like her. I've never played a role like this before.

Jayne Houdyshell and Mary Beth Peil in Follies
(© Joan Marcus)
TM: Will it be hard to recapture Solange in Follies, especially with such a short break between the two productions?
MBP: I don't think it will be difficult to get back to Solange. First, we have the wonderful music of Stephen Sondheim to get us there, and it will be the same costumes and same blocking as New York. I never thought anyone would cast me in that role -- even I had doubts once I got the part. But Eric Schaeffer and Warren Carlyle, our director and choreographer, gave me permission to do what I wanted with her. I did not have to play her the way other people have. And eventually, I did fall in love with her and the part. Even though I'm only on stage for a few minutes, every time you're up there, you have to hit a home run. It's really a good exercise in concentration.

TM: You certainly stand out in Follies, in that amazing black dress. How did that costume come about?
MBP: Gregg Barnes, the designer, and I talked over the phone. I wanted to be the tallest woman on stage, and I thought it would be great to be all in black. I was thinking something in silk or satin, but he wanted a knit dress -- so we found this wonderful woman who does her own knitwork. It's extraordinary.

TM: You're on your third season of The Good Wife -- which has been renewed for a fourth. What's your take on Jackie? She's sort of become the villain of the show, hasn't she?
MBP: I don't think Jackie is bad person, she's just from the old school in Chicago, where family and politics is all the same thing. She's all about the rules and what's allowed to be broken and what's not. As far as she's concerned, someone's got to maintain the standards. And she is truly protective of her son and grandkids and to keep the family dynasty going through Peter. She doesn't think he did anything wrong in cheating on his wife, because he did what her own husband did. It's hard for Jackie to think what she could've done differently; it's too potentially dangerous for her own well-being..

TM: Do you enjoy working with that amazing cast?
MBP: Yes. Julianna Margulies is such a wonderful actress and wonderful person. It's so delightful for all of us to be working with her. The only thing is we work really quickly, and the minute the shot is finished, we're in hysterics and then we're done. I'd like to hang out with her more. And I'd love to have some scenes with Christine Baranski. We did Sweeney Todd together at the Kennedy Center; she's a great gal and it would be fun to have the woman-to-woman dynamic between Jackie and Diane.

TM: Do you have any other theater plans coming up after Follies?
MBP: No, but I never know what happens when the phone rings or who is going to end up on the other end. Anything can happen. Right now, I feel like my career is some kind of miracle.

For tickets and information to The Morini Strad, click here.


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