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The Tony nominee serves snacks and sass in the immersive absurdist comedy Bonnie's Last Flight
Even though Barbara Walsh has made a living doing what she loves for the past four decades, she still vividly remembers when she didn't. "I waited tables like a lot of actors do, and I had an office job for about 10 seconds until I broke the Xerox machine," she says, chuckling. Walsh is well aware that many people are never able to dump their day jobs. Just look at Jan, the flight attendant/aspiring author of a certain age Walsh is playing in Bonnie's Last Flight at Next Door at NYTW.
"Jan represents a lot of people in the working class who have to do something in order to get all the bills paid," Walsh says. "Her passion is put on hold for 30 years. I think something can deaden in the soul when you are not able to gravitate toward the thing that makes you the fullest and freest."
Jan feels the same way, which is why she has decided to retire so she can try to write the next great American novel. But during the course of her very bumpy final flight, her life goes off the radar.
Walsh is best known for her roles in Broadway musicals: She was nominated for a Tony as Trina in the original production of Falsettos and she put her own cynical stamp on "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the John Doyle revival of Company. She's also tackled quite a few dramatic parts, sometimes directed by her husband, Jack Cummings III, who runs Transport Group. But Bonnie's Last Flight is unlike anything she's done before. Not only is she performing just inches from the audience with the houselights on (the design team has convincingly transformed the theatre into a claustrophobic aircraft), she also has to run up and down the aisles handing out snacks, attending to passengers and bantering with the garrulous ghost of her idol, Mark Twain.
"I've done roles where the fourth wall is broken in a proscenium situation, but that's nothing like this," she says. "We are literally in between people in the rows! It's zany and silly and I gravitate toward those things because they're necessary in life."
Bonnie's Last Flight is the brainchild of playwright/performer Eliza Bent (who's also a TDF Stages contributor). She had done a few workshops with Grace McLean as Jan. But when McLean had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict, the director, Annie Tippe, reached out to Walsh.
"Annie and I had collaborated before and I really enjoy working with her on every level," Walsh says. "She sent me this script and I was really taken with the imagination behind it and the breaking of the format. It's a nonlinear play but it's a commercial nonlinear play. It has great depths to it, and I was really interested in Jan's arc. We're both older women, and with age comes a confidence and a letting go and a sense of I don't care what other people think anymore. But with that freedom comes risk. The fact that she's taking a wild chance at retiring to pursue what she loves at probably close to my age, I think that's very brave."
Jan isn't the only one having a rough day on the Smelta Air Lines flight to Chicago. Her coworker and BFF, Grieg (Greig Sargeant), feels she's abandoning him. Anxious newbie LeeAnne (Ceci Fernandez) can't get the hang of the job. The pilot (Sam Breslin Wright) is soused and his copilot (Federico Rodriguez) is lovesick. Bonnie (Jan's dog, who's only seen on video) is passing a lot of gas. And Mark Twain (portrayed by the playwright herself with a vaudevillian flair) just won't shut up. Everyone is in some sort of limbo, which is the very nature of air travel. And that's how Jan has spent her entire life.
"Jan's been able to visit so many wonderful places, but there's kind of a running away in the choice of being a flight attendant," Walsh says. "There's this paradox: She's running away so she can be free, yet she's existed for 31 years in a kind of entrapment in the job. I just think it's really interesting."
Jan's profound change in trajectory is also fueled by her sense of encroaching mortality. That's something Walsh, a breast cancer survivor, understands. "Jan loves turbulence, but I hate it," she says. "I'm not glad that I had cancer, but I'm not sorry because it gave me a shift in clarity. The clichés are often true: What is important? What are the things I want to do? What do I want to say? It's like a growth spurt, you savor things more, ordinary things. I know there's less time ahead of me than behind me, and that there aren't any sure bets. You never know when the plane's going to go down."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Barbara Walsh.
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