BWW Interviews: Marg Helgenberger Preps for THE OTHER PLACE at Barrington Stage
As CBS served up the news that Marg Helgenberger's latest series - the CBS drama INTELLIGENCE - will not be renewed, she was already busy working on a long hoped for project. She will star in THE OTHER PLACE at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. The Berkshire summer season is about to get underway.
"There's so many theatres in the LA area, it would be nice to eventually move this play there," says Marg Helgenberger about her latest project, one she promised herself when she left CSI two years ago.
In deciding to do The Other Place at Barrington Stage, Marg Helgenberger has accepted the biggest acting challenge of her long and honored career. When she steps into the role of Juliana Smithton, she assumes the identity a successful neurologist whose life seems to be coming unhinged. Her husband has filed for divorce, her daughter has eloped with a much older man and her own health is in jeopardy. But in this brilliantly crafted work, nothing is as it seems. Piece by piece, a mystery unfolds as fact blurs with fiction, past collides with present and the elusive truth about Juliana boils to the surface. The story unfolds in a cottage on the windswept shores of Cape Cod.
Marg Helgenberger and Christopher Innvar. Murray photo.
At a preview gathering in the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, director Christopher Innvar and the popular Emmy Award-winning star of TV's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation made themselves available to talk about the upcoming show. A transcript of that discussion follows.
Helgenberger has had one of the most successful careers of any actor, and most of it on television which she says is a "writers medium." But for all her success, she yearned for a chance to return to the "actor's medium", live theatre.
"After my run on CSI I had wanted to do a play," she told us. "I have been wanting to do a play for a very, very long time. When I left it wasn't because I was unhappy...it was quite a lucrative job." And it took ten months out of every year for filming, leaving little time for family, much less the intense demands of live theatre.
In what could be the understatement of the year, she said: "The role that I'm playing, Juliana Smithton, could fall under the category of tour-de-force. When you get the opportunity to play a role as complex as this woman is, as an actor, why not jump at the chance."
In fact the role is enormously convoluted, alternately controlled and contentious, demanding and needy.
Helgenberger is in every single one of the show's 85 minutes. Murray photo.
In the off-Broadway and Broadway iterations we witness what - at first - can only be described as a fully competent, strong professional woman. The flashes of a pit bull like personality make for a delicious role, but what happens in this puzzle play is that nothing is as it seems. The audience begins to sense that her apparent expertise has begun to clash with the facts, and her memory is possibly clouded by paranoia.
The play jumps back and forth in time, place and memory with split second timing. Appearing with Marg Helgenberger are Katya Campbell, Adam Donshik and Brent Langdon.
The story demands split second changes of focus and personality. One step at a time the mystery unravels as contradictory evidence, blurred truth and fragmented memories collide. This is done at a blistering speed that can leave even the audience breathless, until the end in which a new and different truth is revealed.
The play itself was rewritten by Sharr White between its first and second New York productions. The playwright has delivered what is arguably the most challenging role for a woman in contemporary theatre.
In Juliana's most lost, desperate moments, we're aware of her native mental agility and her fierce pride, which make her painful journey all the more poignant.
Helgenberger warmed up to the tremendous challenge ahead. "Once the curtain goes up it's an actor's playing field and we're totally in control of what happens on that stage."What she likes about the Barrington Stage process: "To have a thorough rehearsal process. To be in front of a live audience. A fresh performance every night. It's a full bodied performance compared to film and TV."
As so many actors do, she has broken down the role she is assuming."She's such a highly, highly intelligent woman. To a fault. She's smarter than most. She's a woman in a man's profession dominated by men. She has to be stronger and tougher to assert herself. She has cut herself off a little bit from her emotional side. She has to bury those feelings very, very deep. That allows for all these different sides of her to come out in odd ways. Unpredictable ways. It's probably the most challenging role I've played."
Innvar agreed that this is a tremendously difficult role noting that Marg is taking on "a character who is brilliant, sharp, funny, sexy (and) has all of these strengths. What happens to someone who all their lives have all the answers. What happens when they start not having the answers?"
Helgenberger could have returned to the stage with a far easier and more accessible role in a play like Private Lives or Same Time, Next Year. Instead, she searched without success for some time in the major cities looking for a role she could sink her teeth into. And found it in the Berkshires where intelligent plays are so well received. Says the actor: "Since I left the show in December of 2011, I went around and met with producers. They were all eager to meet with me. They would say let's find something, let's find something. A few things came along but nothing I really wanted to do. So, I don't know, it really has to do with the part." In the end, she found Sharr White's complex Juliana the role that was rewarding enough. "It's so richly written," commented Innvar.
When, Where, Tickets - The Other Place will be presented at the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield. Performances are Tuesday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 4pm (excluding May 24), and Sunday at 3pm. There will be an additional matinee Thursday, June 12 at 4pm. Press Opening: Sunday, May 25 at 3pm. Tickets start at $40. Low priced previews May 21 and May 22 are $15. To purchase tickets or for more information, call the Barrington Stage Box Office at 413-236-8888 or visit www.barringtonstageco.org. The Box Office is located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield.