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Interview: Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Melting Stability in Evanston Salt Costs Climbing

The actor talks about her role in Will Arbery's new play.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine won a 2019 Lucille Lortel Award for her performance in Jackie Sibblies Drury's Marys Seacole.
(© David Gordon)

Quincy Tyler Bernstine is one of my favorite actors. I first saw her in Guillermo Calderón's Neva, playing a Russian actor with an unforgettable monologue. I've been consistently awed by her performances over the last decade in plays like Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds, and most recently, and Jackie Sibblies Drury's Marys Seacole.

As someone with the ability to convey layers of meaning in seemingly mundane lines, it seems almost fated that Bernstine would end up working with Will Arbery: His most notable (and accessible) work is Heroes of the Fourth Turning, about a group of Catholic conservatives debating the future of America (it won the 2020 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award). But an air of mystery surrounds his other plays, like Plano and Corsicana. They follow you home and stick in your brain, offering no easy takeaways or digestible morals.

Arbery's newest play in New York is Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, which begins performances with the New Group tonight (October 26) ahead of an official opening on November 13 (the play made its world premiere at Nantucket's White Heron Theatre in 2018). It's about Peter and Basil, two snow removal workers in Evanston, Illinois. Bernstine plays their friend and boss, Jane Maiworm, the assistant director of Public Works. She thinks she has found a more environmentally friendly way to remove snow that doesn't involve spreading water table-contaminating rock salt. But will that put her friends out of work?

I spoke with Bernstine when she was about three weeks into rehearsals, and she still seemed to be figuring it out — if one can ever really figure out a Will Arbery play. Here's what she had to say:

Quincy Tyler Bernstine starred in Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel at McCarter Theatre in 2017.
(© T Charles Erickson)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Evanston Salt Costs Climbing isn't exactly a title that grabs you by the collar. What did you think when you first read it?

I knew immediately that it would be special, but I knew it would be especially challenging. So the attraction was almost immediate.

Your character is a total infrastructure nerd who idolizes Jane Jacobs. How far afield is that from your own interests?

We have some similarities. I was a public policy major in college, and at one point I wanted to go into public service of some sort. I think I can be a nerd in some ways. She's very detail oriented. We share that similarity. But then, of course, there are ways that we're different and I'm still trying to figure that out.

Anxiety radiates off the page of this play, and a lot of it comes from your character's daughter, Jane Jr. (Rachel Sachnoff). Maiworm does a lot of work just to calm her down. Is that a role you often play in your offstage life?

I think my husband would probably say that's his role. I think I might come across as someone who's strong and in control. But I certainly have my moments of feeling, um, dread. I feel it quite strongly walking around the streets of New York.

When your character tries to broach the subject of Peter and Basil's termination, she offers a stream of statistics, which I imagine is cold comfort.

And actually, she says it not going happen today. Maybe it won't even happen. She's just trying to give them some warning. But the guilt of that is heavy because these are her family members, essentially.

The play seems to be about the illusion of stability in both employment and our personal lives. In many ways, actors are the pioneers of the gig economy, always having to audition for the next job.

I am so fortunate that I've had the opportunity to work fairly consistently, but I'm never going to feel secure. I don't think this business affords anyone that luxury. And if I've learned nothing else in these last few years of living through a pandemic, it's that you can't really count on anything.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine starred in Heidi Schreck's Grand Concourse at Playwrights Horizons in 2014.
(© Joan Marcus)

What did you do during your pandemic?

I was in Bushwick. I was home a lot. I did a lot of Zoom readings. I started running outside, which has become such a wonderful thing in my life. And I watched a lot of news.

Well, that's horrible.

I know. I guess I'm just addicted. I read all the Atlantic articles about what was going on. I watched all the CNN town halls. That's how I spent my pandemic. But in February, my husband and I moved to DC. We made it through the height of the pandemic and then I just wanted to be near my family. I have a niece and a nephew who are small and I was tired. New York was killing me. So we moved to DC and now I'm splitting my time.

What's next after this?

I'm supposed to be doing the Three Sisters at New York Theater Workshop. So, I'm looking forward to that. We were about to start rehearsals when everything shut down in 2020. Then it kept getting pushed. So…knock wood.

What are you hoping audiences take away from Evanston Salt Costs Climbing?

It's such a beautiful play. It's so hard to even talk about, really. I've been trying to figure out how to say what it's about and I don't know. I just know that we're creating something in the room that's really singular and I just want the audience to feel something.