BWW Interview: Susan Pourfar's Mid-Life Crisis in MARY PAGE MARLOWE
MARY PAGE MARLOWE is a deeply moving drama about an unremarkable life.
Born after World War II, Marlowe harbored dreams of independence and adventure. That those dreams were never realized should surprise no fan of Tracy Letts' powerful writing.
Six women (and a doll) portray the title character at stages of her life to near death. Susan Pourfar plays middle-aged Marlowe, an Ohio accountant, at 40 and 44. It's a pivotal junction in Marlowe's life, when the decisions she makes will impact her two children indelibly.
"It totally intersects with the place I'm at in my life," said Pourfar, a mother of two. "My first scene is with my kids, and I'm telling them about a plan to start a new life in Kentucky. I try everything I can do to enact this plan with love," she said. Audiences can decide if she was successful or not.
Plans often go awry, a trope emphasized throughout the decades of Marlowe's life of quiet desperation. In her 40s, Marlowe is battling her soon-to-be ex-husband and a drinking problem. Pourfar welcomes the challenge to portray a mature, experienced woman with more than the usual baggage.
"Most actors want to remain playing young but I, like my characters, want to be able to age fearlessly," Pourfar said. "When I play Mary, she's older and is dealing with issues people have at midlife," she said. "She's already had lots of experiences and I'm loving it, totally embracing it."
She was attracted to the role because of her admiration for both the prize-winning playwright Letts and the director, Lila Neugebauer.
"I think he's one of the greatest living writers right now. To be able to participate in a Tracy Letts play is an honor," Pourfar said. "It was on my bucket list."
Marlowe's life may seem ordinary on the surface, but to the actors playing her at different ages, it's extraordinary. The formidable cast of 18 includes Blair Brown, Tatiana Maslany, Grace Gummer, Marcia DeBonis and David Aaron Baker. "All of the actors are amazing, and I especially hold Blair in such high regard," Pourfar said. Brown plays Mary in her later years.
The character "is part of our everything," Pourfar said. "What Mary Page goes through in her younger ages isn't a picnic, and there's deep searching in her 30s. She's always questioning her identity and what her voice is," she said. "Is it free volition or predetermination that makes a life?"
Portraying a woman close to her age has stretched Pourfar's acting. "I don't agree with her coping mechanisms, but I understand them," she said. "She has to make difficult choices out of necessity, she wasn't able to fall back onto a trust fund." Marlowe is also less affectionate than Pourfar. Children are important to Marlowe, but she doesn't mollycoddle them.
"She cares deeply, but she's not soft and snuggly," she said. "I had an impulse to hug them, or touch their hand and rub their backs, but that's not this character's impulses."
An adult child of alcoholic parents, Marlowe grows up with a hard-wired survival mechanism and sharpness. "She has her own issues over the years," Pourfar said. "Extra-marital affairs, drinking. She hits bottom in her 50s."
Pourfar has been familiar with Letts' work since her early performing arts days in school and arts camp. "I remember doing MAN FROM NEBRASKA for an acting class and I loved seeing BUG and of course AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY," she recalled.
"He writes with a dry humor, a dark humor, and if people get it, great. Mary Page is not a showman," Pourfar said. "Most people at that age see the absurdity of life and you either have to laugh or die."
For those in need of a reminder of their mortality, a cellphone app, WeCroak, sends subscribers pithy invitations five times a day to stop and contemplate death. "Blair has it and she told me she goes to the app every day," Pourfar said. "It helps you contemplate life and kind of shakes you up to handle your business now," she said with a laugh. "I haven't gotten it yet but plan to."
The assorted costume and wig design reflects the decades being lived in by each actor. "We have a wig and costume designer," she said. "The way Mary looks reflects how she feels as well as the time she's living in.
"It tells the audience how much attention she's paying to her appearance. My wig is shaped like Princess Di's. We have one blonde and one white-haired Mary. Once after the show someone said to me, 'You look just like my mother,'" she said laughing.
The clothes are also time-appropriate. "Even the jeans are vintage. The designers found real clothes from those times. It's completely detailed from start to finish," Pourfar said.
Before shows, the large cast gathers for a hug and words of mutual encouragement. "I think everyone is here because of Tracy and Lila," said Pourfar. "Even if it's just for one scene, actors want to work with these people, be in the room."
Pourfar has been reading books to help her further understand her character. "I've been reading a book for adult children of alcoholics for one," she said. She's also reading a book by Twyla Tharp about the creative process.
The actors rehearse four hours a day while in previews. "It's exhausting," Pourfar said, "but it's important. I catch up on my sleep whenever I can."
Mary Page Marlowe is playing at Second Stage at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street. Scenic design is by Laura Jellinek, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by Tyler Micoleau and sound design and original music by Brandon Wolcott.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus