Melissa Gilbert Leaves the Prairie Behind as She Returns to the New York Stage

The prolific actor once known as Half Pint is making a new name for herself off-Broadway.

Melissa Gilbert is probably best known to audiences as Laura Ingalls Wilder, the plucky girl in pigtails from the long-running TV series Little House on the Prairie. But what audiences may not know is that while Gilbert was earning her bona fides as a television actor, she was also learning the craft of stage acting.

At the age of 14, she took on the role of Helen Keller in William Gibson's play The Miracle Worker, opposite Patty Duke as Anne Sullivan, at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, Florida, before the production was filmed for television (Gilbert received an Emmy nomination for her performance). She later went on to star in off-Broadway plays such as A Shayna Maidel, as well as in regional productions around the country.

Now, Gilbert has returned to her acting roots in New York and is focusing her efforts on the stage. In less than a year, she has had successful runs in two off-Broadway productions and is currently starring in Geraldine Aron's Olivier Award-nominated play My Brilliant Divorce, directed by Aedín Moloney at the New Ohio Theatre. TheaterMania recently sat down with Gilbert to talk about her first solo play and find out what advice she might give to that young girl in pigtails.

Melissa Gilbert stars in the New York premiere of Geraldine Aron's solo play My Brilliant Divorce, directed by Aedín Moloney, at the New Ohio Theatre.
Melissa Gilbert stars in the New York premiere of Geraldine Aron's solo play My Brilliant Divorce, directed by Aedín Moloney, at the New Ohio Theatre.
(© Eileen Connolly)

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You've been busy in recent months starring in the plays If Only…, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and The Dead, 1904 with Irish Rep. What brought you back to New York?

It was a combination of luck and determination. I wanted to challenge myself and stretch. I told my agents, let's start over, let's reinvent, do new stuff, and let me prove myself as an actor, not just a performer. I think that the last thing that was stuck in people's memories about me was Dancing With the Stars, and I wanted to remind people that I started out as an actor, so I went back to my roots, to the Actors Studio. While I was doing The Dead, 1904, I became friends with Aedín Moloney, who knew the playwright Geraldine Aron, and she said to me one day, "I have this play that would be perfect for you." So she asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, "Sure, if you direct it." And here we are.

Also, the general feeling that I have is that there is more opportunity and more of an appreciation for a woman my age in New York than in Los Angeles. The pressure to not age there was just too great. And I think that the combination of film, television, and theater here also provides more opportunities.

This is the New York premiere of My Brilliant Divorce. What's it about and what can audiences expect?

It's about a woman retelling the story of the first three years of her life after her British husband leaves her for a 25-year-old woman. This is a woman in her middle years, and she's come up very much under his thumb. He's very abusive, and she's never been with anyone but him. It's the story of her journey, and she goes through some pretty dark places to come out the other end. But it's also very funny. I grew up in a family of comics — my father, my godparents were stand-up comics, my grandfather was a comedy writer — and we cover pain with humor. Geraldine definitely employs that, and what's terrific about the way she's written this is that the tone shifts all the time. It's a tragicomedy.

It's also a solo piece, but you don't just play the main character, Rachel.

I'm not just her. That's one of the many, many challenges — defining each of the other characters that Rachel imitates. You have to try to figure out how they feel about Rachel when they're talking to her or about her. And they're all from different places, and are different genders and different ages and have different accents. It's incredibly complicated, and yet that's one of the things that makes it easy to remember where I am in the play.

Do you think your past relationships inform your interpretation of Rachel's character?

Oh yeah, no question. There is one specific relationship from my past who is the character Roundhead [Rachel's nickname for her ex], although his head is not necessarily round, and he's not British. And there are a lot of different people who make appearances in this play, people that I see as the templates for certain characters.

Is there another big role you'd like to take on at some point?

You know, I've never really had my heart set on anything in particular. As long as I keep having the opportunity to challenge myself and take risks and do stuff that scares me, then I'm gonna do it. I've never done Shakespeare, so that would be a whole new world of … terror. Listen, Ellen Burstyn did her first Shakespeare last year [in As You Like It at Classic Stage Company]. So there you go.

Your first time onstage was when you were 14. Has theater always been something you wanted to do?

Always, always. The Little House musical [in 2008] was another example. I'd never done a musical and it scared the crap out of me, so I had to do it.

In addition to acting, you also wrote a children's book a few years ago called Daisy and Josephine. Is it autobiographical in any way?

Yes. That's about my dad. And the teacher in the book, Mrs. Minniear, she was my teacher on the set [of Little House]. So it is a little bit of an autobiography. And my French bulldog, Josephine, came with me on the book tour in her tutu and her tiara.

Looking back, what advice would you give to Half Pint?

Don't be so hard on yourself. You don't have to be perfect all the time. You don't have to be everything for everybody. Be a kid. Slow down. Don't be in such a hurry to grow up. … And stop biting your nails.