By ERIC GRODE
When in doubt, Marin Ireland sends her mother the script
That's always important in determining whether Mama Ireland will be comfortable making the trip to New York to see her daughter perform. "She doesn't even like seeing me on Law & Order in the morgue," says the actress.
Her mother did see her in a Neil LaBute play---2009's Reasons to Be Pretty---which featured Ms. Ireland unleashing a blisteringly profane diatribe against the protagonist, but that show was a cakewalk compared to Bad Jazz, which had her performing lewd acts with an adult toy, or the acclaimed revival of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, in which her character sustains brain damage after being beaten nearly to death.
And then there are the works of Sarah Kane, the British playwright who committed suicide at the age of 28, but not before writing some of the late 20th century's most harrowing texts. Ireland has appeared in two of them: 4.48 Psychosis, Kane's fragmentary exploration of depression, and Blasted. The latter play was a defining critical and commercial success for Soho Rep in 2008, featuring Ireland in the unforgettable role of Cate, a disturbed young woman whose assignation with a dissolute journalist devolves into a Boschian hellscape.
"When that show closed---I'm not kidding---I threw up for four days straight," Ireland says. Still, it continues to exert an almost hypnotic pull on her: "It's a show I think about every day, and I wish I could go back to it."
For now, Ireland is "going back" in a more fanciful way, with a play that's lighter, at least on the surface, than her typical New York fare. (Ireland does point out that she frequently takes on less bruising projects outside of New York, including a Boston production of As You Like It. "My mom was happy when I did As You Like It she says.)
In Jordan Harrison's new play Maple and Vine, which opens Dec. 7 at Playwrights Horizons, Ireland plays Katha, who finds the world to be too much with her of late. When she stumbles onto a dapper man from a community of 1950s re-enactors (a bit like those Civil War zealots, but with Tupperware), she and her husband decide to cast aside modern life and insert themselves into the white-picket-fence existence of 1955 America, with all the comforts and hypocrisies that come with it.
Initiation into this society requires complete immersion, a process that Ireland likens to acting in general. "A lot of Jordan's plays are about play-acting in this controlled environment," she says. "Finding somebody new to be for a while can bring you back to yourself, in a way. I can't wait to find out what weird part of myself will come out each time."
In the process, Ireland has gained some insight into what fuels Katha's radical choices. "The modern world feels so unpredictable and beyond her control, and the only way she feels she can cope is to move into this world where everything is controlled," Ireland says. This empathy carries over to a scene where Katha, whose husband is Japanese-American, makes an unusual request of her fellow time travelers. "I love feeling this sort of Arctic chill coming from the audience at that moment," says the actress.
Ireland is a longtime fan of Harrison's plays, and she is delighted to finally be performing in one. "His words are so precise that it's not quite like being in a modern-day scene," she says. "It's like being in this exciting parallel world." One that she might even invite her mother to visit.
Eric Grode is the author of the recently released "Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation" (Running Press).