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Tony Nominee Jan Maxwell on Family, Politics, and The City of Conversation

The chameleonic actress discusses how a liberal upbringing helped her dig deep into her latest character. logo

You don't earn five Tony Award nominations by being a slouch. So it's no surprise that Jan Maxwell, who wowed audiences in shows as diverse as Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family, can do it all.

In The City of Conversation, a new drama by Anthony Giardina at Lincoln Center Theater, Maxwell plays Hester Ferris, a (fictitious) Georgetown political hostess with a known influence in liberal social circles. The play opens with her son (Michael Simpson) arriving home from the London School of Economics, with his new girlfriend (played by Kristen Bush), a staunchly conservative Reaganite. Spanning three decades and six presidential administrations, Giardina explores what happens when Hester must choose between defending her beliefs or losing her family because of them.

It's a challenging piece for any actress, even Maxwell, an actress who makes shifting back and forth from musicals and plays look like a piece of cake. She recently chatted with TheaterMania about her own political allegiances and the reasons that this emotional train of a show leaves her in a "complete state of joy."

Jan Maxwell plays Hester Ferris in Anthony Giardina's The City of Conversation, directed by Doug Hughes, at Lincoln Center Theater.
(© Stephanie Berger)

How much of yourself do you see in Hester?
She's very close to home. I'm a die-hard liberal. I grew up in a liberal family in North Dakota, so there was always that fight against the conservative agenda. My parents were interested in politics. One of my first memories is handing out flyers for [Edmund] Muskie when I was little. It's a pretty die-hard Democratic Party spirit I come from, and Hester is very much that. Plus, [like Hester] I have an only son, and I can stop yelling at him and go to the theater to do it there. [laughs]

What was it that attracted you to the play?
I thought it was a smart play, and a play about ideas, and I think that's awfully rare. We've kind of crashed and burned on the lowest common denominator when it comes to mainstream New York theater. I'm actually surprised by how effusive the response is from the audiences that have come.

Why are you surprised?
I didn't think it would be such a heartfelt connection, which you need in theater. And then I realized, of course, that the personal is so beautifully intertwined, that it's not just a dry history lesson; it's a very profound family experience….it's smart, it talks about history, it talks about politics, and it brings up many historical figures from the recent past.

My son came on opening night, and he said that he felt a little lost with the history, but it doesn't really matter. What you're seeing is someone who is extremely passionate about her beliefs and the sacrifices she makes for those beliefs, and that makes it universal. You see how you can make one wrong turn and how it can affect the rest of your life.

As the mother of a son, could you see yourself going through what Hester goes through with her son in the play?
Oh my god. It always moves me to tears because I can't imagine my life without my son. I just couldn't imagine that. That is the most rewarding and profound experience of my life, having a son. To have to play that every night, it's a little bit costly, emotionally.

How do you come down after all the emotions you go through?
I'm exhausted. Even when I am offstage, I'm in a costume change. Even at intermission. It's a run. The wonderful thing is that I start off the play just absolutely joyous that my son is home, unlike some plays where you sit there and really have to concentrate on where you're coming from. This one I just get to step on the ride in a complete state of joy, and it takes me where it takes me. It's wrenching, but nothing can stop once the train is in motion.

It's a lot of fun to watch you and Kristen Bush, who plays your staunchly conservative daughter-in-law, duke it out onstage.
In the play, I just want to beat her head in, and it's been hard on Kristen and me. We always have to check in on each other because that stuff can bleed. We talked about it before rehearsals started. We do check in on each other in a kindly manner because it's really hard on us. She's a liberal [who] comes from a conservative family, so she has a little insight into what she's talking about. They worked very hard at making her arguments compelling and I think she does a wonderful job with that.

Do you have anything on tap once this play ends its run?
Nope. No job, no hope, no future, you know. [laughs] We're waiting on a TV series I had a very small part in last year to see if it gets picked up again. It doesn't premiere until the middle of July. It's called The Divide, and it stars Damon Gupton and Marin Ireland. We're waiting on that, and I'm trying to get to Italy. If I can't get there I want to get to Bali. I want to go places while I'm ambulatory!

I have to end with the question: When are you going to do another musical?
As soon as they hire me to do one!


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