Mercedes Ruehl: 'Zee Matriarch' of THE AMERICAN PLAN
Mercedes Ruehl is no stranger to the high-stakes of mother/daughter on-stage drama. In her 1991 Tony Award-winning performance as the intriguing "special" daughter Bella in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, she stood-up to her stern mother on more than one occasion. Only now, the tables have turned! Ms. Ruehl finds herself on Broadway as the mighty matriarch in Richard Greenberg's family-feud The American Plan.
In a performance Ben Brantley of the New York Times calls "masterly," Ruehl portrays Eva Adler, the German-Jewish mother to a "special" daughter Lili, vacationing in the Catskills. The summer turns interesting at the arrival of not one, but two handsome all-American boys. As a woman accustom to control, how does Eva treat these new arrivals while maintaining guard over her precious (but rebelliously curious) child?
Born in Queens, New York, Mercedes Ruehl has worked her steely magic for decades on film and stage, garnering an 1992 Academy Award & Golden Globe, 1991 Tony Award (and two other nominations, 1995 & 2002), Drama Desk Award and two Obie Awards.
After an evening of The American Plan's tight-woven drama and precarious comedy, I was elated to discover Ms. Ruehl not-only weaves herself around Greenberg's titillating language, but is a wonderful conversationalist in her own right! ("English major!" she later explained)...
Eugene Lovendusky: New York Magazine says your "matriarch is one of the grandest stage creations of the last twenty years - a great wreck of history sitting sad and sympathetic at the center of the show." Congratulations. I have to agree, from the moment you're on-stage, my eyes can't leave you. How did you tackle this woman?
Mercedes Ruehl: Some roles require a building from the foundation up; it really doesn't come to you easily. In some roles you do that very hard work where, at some point into rehearsals, where all of a sudden it snaps into place. You feel like the soul of this character is now dwelling in you. But sometimes you know right away who this person is - from the first read-through, and this happened to be what happened to me in this one. I find that once you find the sound and voice of this character you're playing, everything else follows. It comes right out of the fingertips eventually - the physicality, the gestures, the walk - for me. This may have been my little stroke of good luck.
I've always had facility with the German accent. There was a girl in my college house. Her name was Lily Anne, she was the "house boss." She would announce everything with a German accent at the bottom of the stairs. She would say [kicks into heavy Fräu accent] "Vee are haveeng a fire-dreel at oh-five-hundred hours. I vant everyvun out on zee street." She was just a crazy silly girl. We all would respond to her in-kind, and that little German accent crept in. For me, it was very funny and expressive.
I also had a wonderful nurse in a doctor's office named Rose-Marie, and [kicks into accent again] she vas from Germany and she vas tall and skeenny, and she vore senseeble shoos and a little vhite cardigan over her vhite nurse's uneeform and she had a spray of red and zilver hair and she vould say: "Now Merceedees, you see zat row of vials zer? Everyvun is going to be feeled vith your blood bevore you stand up again!"
And of course working with Irene Worth in Lost in Yonkers, she played a German-Jewish grandmother. A lot of things she did, especially the things she did with her mouth, crept into my performance. It came from many places but largely it was an unconscious assemblage of many influences that by quite a nice pleasant miracle.
Eugene: That seems so fatalistic.
Mercedes: It doesn't always happen that way - and it doesn't always mean it's going to be a better characterization from something you have to work on from the bottom-up. Of course a lot changed over rehearsals, but I started with a deep sense of who this person was. A lot of that is thanks to Richard Greenberg, because it was all there in the script.