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Jayne Houdyshell Is an Unlikely Robin Hood in The Shoplifters at Arena Stage

The Broadway veteran talks new work, regional theater, and her long-overdue D.C. stage debut. logo

Two-time Tony nominee Jayne Houdyshell built her career on the regional-theater circuit, performing in over 200 plays from Louisville, Kentucky, to Chicago over the first several decades of her career. Yet not until this year will the actress be crossing the regional frontier, making her Washington, D.C. debut at Arena Stage in the world premiere of Morris Panych's new comedy The Shoplifters.

"I don't know how it worked out that way, but I'm glad to finally be here," said the stage veteran, who was last seen on Broadway as the Nurse in the 2013 revival of Romeo and Juliet (starring Orlando Bloom), and earned a Tony nomination the year before for her turn as "Broadway Baby" Hattie Walker in the revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. She now heads to our nation's capital to star as Alma, a career shoplifter with a hint of Robin Hood-like heroism. She took some time during rehearsal to chat with TheaterMania about the new play, whose message may ring particularly true with its politically located audiences.

Jayne Houdyshell stars as career shoplifter Alma in the world premiere of The Shoplifters, written and directed by Morris Panych, at Arena Stage.

What was it about this character, Alma, that attracted you?
She's kind of the moral center of the play. She's a champion for the little people, and she's a bit of an outlaw and a renegade — a Robin Hood in a way, and I admire her courage and her intelligence and her humor. She's also an ordinary person. As a senior citizen and as a person without much money — she represents a demographic that is important to hear from.

How does a woman who has made a career of shoplifting become the "moral center" of the play?
One of the things that the play discusses and the big question that it asks is, In our modern culture, who are the real thieves? She operates under the belief that there are a lot of people at the top who are getting away with a lot of thievery and not getting called on it at all. Whereas there are a lot of people at the bottom who are struggling to make ends meet and sometimes the only way they can do that is by taking what they can't pay for.

Do you think that will strike a chord with D.C. audiences, being in the heart of politics where all of those hot-button social issues are being debated?
I'm hoping it will be. I have a feeling that this play will resonate with a lot of people. It's a very smart play…and it's a delightful comedy, but it also talks about big issues.

How have you been working on channeling this character?
I can't say that there's anyone directly in my life [who] resembles this character, so a lot of the work that I've been doing has just been coming out of my own imagination. It's a real luxury to have the playwright in the room with you exploring this. Our playwright Morris Panych is also the director of the piece, so he's very informative and open to questions and exploration. [It's] illuminating just to hear his take on the role.

You've tended to play very maternal roles throughout your career. Is this a new kind of role for you?
Well, she does have a maternal element, but she is a tough old bird and had to survive by her wits and her will for her entire life…I find her delightful and interesting. I always appreciate it when people write about people not just in my age range, but a variety of different ages and demographics. She's not a typical leading lady on any level. There's no glamour about any of the people in the play. They're all people we might know or work with or see on the street.

Do you enjoy the process of developing new work?
I love it, I love it, I love it. I spent over twenty-five years doing regional theater and doing a lot of classic plays, almost all of which had been played many times, sometimes hundreds of times by other people. When I made the decision to stop working regionally and just focus on being in New York, part of the reason that instigated that choice was a desire to work on new plays and know what it was to originate a part. For the past fifteen years that's primarily what I've been doing and I have to say I love that process very much.

Regional theaters seem to have recently been used as incubation tubes for new works. Did that not used to be the case?
When I was working regionally, there were very few regional theaters that were doing new work. All of the regional theaters that I worked in — none of them did new work. They all did classic repertory seasons. It's only been in recent years that new plays are being developed across the country in a variety of theaters. It's extremely exciting to be part of a world premiere here at Arena. They're not only doing our play as a world premiere but they have five world premieres in their season. It's exciting new work all the way around.