BWW Interview: Bryce Pinkham Discusses his 'Wildly Quirky' Role on MERCY STREET
Fresh off of his Broadway return leading the feel-good musical HOLIDAY INN at Roundabout's Studio 54, Tony-nominee Bryce Pinkham describes his next role as "wildly quirky," "an iron fist in a velvet glove," and possessing "a certain verbal flair."
Beginning this Sunday, January 22nd, Pinkham joins PBS's Civil War medical drama, MERCY STREET, as Major Clayton McBurney III, the new head of the hospital at Mansion House. MERCY STREET airs on Sunday at 8:00 p.m. EST, check your local listings.
Inspired by, and featuring, historical figures, MERCY STREET is set in Union controlled Alexandria, VA at the height of the war. The show follows all of the divergent groups and individuals in and around the former luxury hotel, which has been commandeered for use as a Union hospital; the Northern doctors and nurses, the Southern gentry, attempting to balance freedom and resistance, and the recently freed slaves.
In the drama's first, six-episode season, creators Lisa Q. Wolfinder and David Zabel wonderfully balanced all of the conflicting medical, military, and personal stories for a unique and exciting season. For Season 2, they are adding just a touch more levity to the proceedings, in part thanks to Pinkham's character.
"(McBurney) has a performative nature to him," Pinkham said in a recent interview with BroadwayWorld. "He has this obsession with phrenology, (which) was this study of different parts of the brain; you know, some hocus pocus thing at this exact moment in history.
"There's this scene where I say the words to Mary Phinney, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 'I will now feel your brain.' And, in my interview of the head nurse, I stand behind her and put my fingers in her hair, and start feeling her brain, as if by telling the shape and size of it, I could somehow glean some greater information about her as an employee."
The unique quirks that Major McBurney brings to the Mansion House hospital belie deeper issues for the character that even he might not have been aware of during the mid-19th Century.
"I think part of the reason that I was so excited to play him was, it's a really cool mix of comedy, but with a serious underbelly," Pinkham said. "He gets really obsessed with objects, we sort of start to see that he's working with some severe OCD, which may or may not be caused by whatever triggers are going off in his brain."
Before McBurney was assigned to Mansion House, he served on the front lines, attending to soldiers injured in battle. However, after a near-death experience, he is sent to Alexandria, although he never gives up hope of returning to the front.
"The character, from my perspective, definitely has some PTSD, and he's not even a soldier," Pinkham said. "He's more of an academic; he studied to be a doctor, and then found himself in charge of in-field implementation of a hospital."
A passionate activist and philanthropist, Pinkham has traveled the world with a number of organizations, including Outside the Wire, a theatre group that performs and leads discussions for military groups stationed abroad. One of the organization's signature pieces is a 30-minute production of Sophocles' AJAX, which leads into a townhall discussion of military suicide and P.T.S.D.
"I've listened to a lot of military audiences talk about soldier suicide (and P.T.S.D.) from a modern perspective," Pinkham said, "and it's something that we're still learning how to wrap our heads around, learning how to detach a stigma that's been associated with it."
From an actor's point-of-view, Pinkham has taken the emotions and testimonies from those discussions and used them to inform his performance, even if his character wouldn't quite understand.
"I think it's a really interesting position to be in as an actor," Pinkham said, "to know something as an actor about your character, that your character doesn't know, or the people in his world don't know, or at least don't know how to talk about or characterize. I think for Clayton McBurney, and his contemporaries, they certainly didn't have a name for it, that I'm aware of, but it's undeniable that traumatic events were taking place in front of young men on both sides. And, a lot of that mental and emotional repercussions was visited at the hospital."