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Mercedes Ruehl Rules the Stage

The award-winning actress takes Broadway by storm as the imperious mother in MTC's The American Plan logo
Mercedes Ruehl
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
In a career that has already been filled with plenty of triumphs -- including a Tony Award for Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers and an Academy Award for The Fisher King -- Mercedes Ruehl is nevertheless savoring her latest one: her critically acclaimed portrayal of Eva Adler in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Richard Greenberg's The American Plan at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. A German immigrant who is fiercely protective of her eccentric -- and possibly mentally unhinged -- daughter Lili (played by Lily Rabe), Eva is the play's driving force. TheaterMania spoke with Ruehl shortly after the play's official opening about the production.

THEATERMANIA: Congratulations on so many good reviews for you and the show. At what point, if any, did you know the show would succeed?
MERCEDES RUEHL: It was somewhere around the midpoint in previews. Still, I think this production took a long time to coalesce, because it is such a complicated piece psychologically, and Richard's language is heightened in many ways. So it took a while for all of the actors to become comfortable with it.

TM: Have you read the reviews, and if so, do you pay attention to them?
MR: I've read most of the big reviews. I usually do it by dawn on opening night; I can't do the delayed thing. But by now, I know that you look at both the bad and good ones and not entirely believe either extreme. Of course, had we gotten brutal reviews, I think it would have been virtually impossible for me to go on the following night. And I do think the best reviewers give you insight into your work. For example, some critics said my accent occasionally made some words difficult to understand, so I've been very mindful of my diction, especially words with lots of "R"s. After all, the play is better if the audience understands me and my lines get a laugh.

TM: You appear to have a great facility with accents. Is that the case?
MR: Some accents come very easily, and sometimes I have to work very hard. When I played Frida Kahlo in Viva La Vida at the Bay Street Theatre, I had to be very careful not to use an accent that sounded like I was a Mexican person speaking English; so I tried to use real Latin vowels and sounds. But I find doing accents a lot of fun. For me, the voice and accent rhythm opens the doorway to the character. This one was a little easier for me, because I personally know a number of people who speak with a heavy German accent, and Irene Worth used an excellent accent when we did Lost in Yonkers and there's a little of her in Eva. Also, my ex-doctor's German nurse had a take-no-prisoners type of German accent, and I used to tell her I was going to use it some day.

TM: I know you are of mixed European heritage, but primarily Irish. But I don't think I've ever seen you play an Irish woman or use an Irish accent.
MR: That's true. People don't look at me and think of me as an Irish lass. I would have loved to do Pegeen in Playboy of the Western World. Now, I might be doing a British accent next, in a play called Dinner that I might do this summer at Bay Street.

TM: I thought it was fascinating to have David Grindley, who is British, direct this very American play. Did you find that cultural difference to be a plus or a minus?
MR: First of all, I was the only person in that room to have been in the Catskills in 1960, British or American. But I thought it was great that David didn't bring any preconceptions of that place, yet he had a great sense of its drawing power and beauty. Just look at that set. And he's a very intelligent man with a great love of language. And I felt he knew about people like Eva, who had her sort of cultivated German viewpoint, because of being European.

Mercedes Ruehl
in The American Plan
(© Carol Rosegg)
TM: Can you tell me everything about Eva? Do you create a huge back story for your characters?
MR: No. I have to create a little back story for things that are referred to in the script, but I don't feel the need to create her entire resume and know everything about her background. I do think one can infer from the script that although she and her husband were never in the concentration camps -- they say they took the last boat out -- they may have lost relatives, and he was probably mobilized and escaped from the Nazis several times before coming to America.

TM: After a performance, I think there's a lot of discussion among audience members about Eva's motivations vis a vis Lili. What's your take on why Eva behaves the way she does?
MR: I think it should be clear that her conscious motivation is to protect her perceived fragile daughter from being used and drawn in to what might be a scheme by the boy (played by Kieran Campion). But this sort of intense protectiveness does give rise to behavior that is very manipulative, and certainly, Eva's real needs may be different than what she says they are, and she may not even be aware of them consciously. I think if you ask any mother who smothers her child, 99 percent would say they were doing it for the child's own good. But if you go underneath the surface, those sort of mothers are troubled. With Eva, you don't get the impression that she has any sort of extended family, created or otherwise, because of her otherness and her cultural snobbery and because of who she is; and she has not had another intimate relationship with another man since her husband died. So her deep and abiding love is only with her daughter.

TM: You have a remarkable onstage relationship with Lily Rabe. Did you know her or her mother, Jill Clayburgh, before this production?
No, though I am connected to Jill in less than six degrees. But Lily and I totally get each other and she is just one of loveliest, gentlest, most generous, and smartest people I've ever worked with. Plus, she's worked her little butt off. To have watched her bring that character into clear deep focus during previews was like watching a Polaroid develop, and I've taken great pleasure in watching this extraordinary image emerge.

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