Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists
The Tony winner returns to the stage in a pair of consecutive plays
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Blair Brown may be best known for her TV roles, especially the titular divorced baby boomer in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Martha Stewart-style convict Judy King on the last two seasons of Orange Is the New Black. But the theatre is where she started and frequently returns. Her Broadway credits include the original production of Arcadia and a Tony-winning turn in Copenhagen. However, this fall Brown's doing something she hasn't tried since her Stratford Shakespeare Festival days in the '60s, appearing in two plays back-to-back: the Olivier Award-winning drama On the Shore of the Wide World, currently in previews at Atlantic Theater Company, followed by The Parisian Woman on Broadway.
"I'll be rehearsing one while performing in the other!" she says, seemingly exhilarated by the prospect of tackling two different projects so closely. "If you're lucky enough to get to work, you can learn about people's lives, how the world works, at a micro and macro level. It's a constant quest for understanding."
Written by Simon Stephens, who won a Tony for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, On the Shore of the Wide World examines three generations of the Holmes family, a provincial British clan living in the town of Stockport. Brown plays the matriarch, Ellen, whose husband, Charlie (Peter Maloney), is a violent alcoholic.
"I was reticent to play someone who was an abused woman and an enabler," says Brown who tends to get cast in strong, independent parts. "But then I thought, yeah, go for it; try and tell this story. In our culture it's very easy to leave when someone makes a transgression. But is there value in enduring? Ellen is such a fascinating character. On the page she appears like a victim, but she is not. She is living with the circumstances of her life, trying to stay true to herself within the limits she has inherited. This play is about the value in riding through the tough stuff with the people that you love."
Brown is keeping the same open mind about her part in The Parisian Woman, which begins previews at the Hudson Theatre on November 7. Written by Beau Willimon (creator of Netflix's House of Cards) and starring Uma Thurman, the Washington, D.C.-set political drama is adapted from Henry François Becque's 19th-century French play La Parisienne. But this version elevates Brown's character from socialite to ambitious politico.
"My character knows it's better to work with the situation than to turn it over," Brown says. "And it's important to see a person like that. How do you survive in a situation with no rules? How do you play a political game when you never know how it's going?"
Brown hasn't been seen on the New York stage since 2013's Nikolai and the Others at Lincoln Center, but she credits her recent high-paying television gigs as enabling her theatrical return. "Television supports my habit," she says. "Orange floats my ability to do theatre!" She is especially glad to be working with the Atlantic Theater Company after a few near misses. "When I got the call from Neil [Pepe, the director of Wide World] I was thrilled," Brown says. "I've been a fan and follower of Simon Stephens, and had read and own a copy of this play. Although I didn't think I was old enough to play Ellen!" Brown adds with a hearty -- and accepting -- laugh. No matter, it's another plum part to add to her diverse résumé.
Doug Strassler is a writer and critic based in New York City. He contributes regularly to TDF Stages.
Top image: Blair Brown in On the Shore of the Wide World. Photos by Ahron R. Foster.
TDF Members: Go here to browse our latest discounts for theatre, dances, and concerts.