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."
Despite the gravity of the character's situation, Pinkham says that the role is more than just a vehicle to highlight a modern perspective on the horrors of war.
"I don't think that McBurney's sole purpose on the show is to bring up P.T.S.D.," he said, "but it's certainly there, and we get to watch how he unravels over the course of Season 2 and how those around him suffer... mostly in a comedic way.
"One of the co-creators described him to me in our first day of rehearsal as 'an iron fist in a velvet glove.' He arrives with a giant feather in his hat, and he's very meticulous in his uniforms, and he has a certain verbal flair, that I would say is really an over-compensation for the emotional short-comings that he brings to the hospital."
In addition to the balance of humor and drama that the character brings, Pinkham was excited about joining the show because of its rich stable of theatre actors. The first season starred the likes of stage and screen star Josh Radnor, Tony-winners Norbert Leo Butz, Donna Murphy, Cherry Jones, and L. Scott Caldwell, as well as Gary Cole, Peter Gerety, McKinley Belcher III, Wade Williams, Betty Gilpin, and Tony-nominees Reg Rogers, Suzanne Bertish, and Shalita Grant. In addition to Pinkham, the second season will also see the introduction of Tony-winners Patina Miller and Brían F. O'Byrne.
"When we got down there, it was like Broadway in Richmond," Pinkham said. "I think (in) any good cast, the energy stems from the top down, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Josh Radnor really led that community feel.
"Everybody was invited to every meal. We all stayed in the same hotel, and there was a courtyard where we all hung out. So, it really took on this beautiful three-month summer camp kind of feel to it."
With theatrical royalty in the cast, it wasn't long until the hotel hangouts turned musical.
"We definitely got our sing-a-long going in that courtyard; that courtyard got some free concerts that were pretty great," Pinkham said. "We kept joking (that) MERCY STREET has to do a Broadway musical parody, because there were so many of us down there. It was really a great group, and I wish we had recorded a MERCY STREET album, or something (laughs). Maybe if there's a Season 3, I'll get them to do a musical episode."
Which characters are you most looking forward to Bryce interacting with this season? Let me know on Twitter @BWWMatt. You can listen to me on BroadwayRadio or on BroadwayWorld's pop culture podcast Some Like it Pop.
Banner Image: Bryce Pinkham. Photo Credit: PBS