By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
No wonder it took Tracee Chimo a few performances to discover how Molly speaks. She already had her hands full with April, Betsy, and Fran.
Chimo portrays all four women in the Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles
, Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy about the successes, failures, and increasingly complicated desires of the first feminist generation. As the title heroine, Elisabeth Moss evolves from a painfully awkward high schooler in the 1960s to a wiser-but-wounded art historian in the Reagan years, and in every decade, she meets one of Chimo's characters. All of them challenge Heidi in some way, reflecting back a part of herself that she hasn't quite developed.
These women test Chimo, too, mostly because she inhabits them all in quick succession. "It's challenging in a totally different way than having to play the lead who is carrying the show," she says. "Playing four different people is such a different muscle. In a way, you almost have to be sharper. Because if a scene doesn't go the way you want it to go, then you don't have a chance to redeem yourself. Because that's it! You're done! You did the one character, and now you have to change and get ready to do the other one."
And when a character is only on stage for a single scene, it not easy to make them feel complete. Which brings us back to Molly, who shows up at the wedding of Heidi's ex-boyfriend. Molly is dating Heidi's friend Susan, and they're living together on a ranch. That's not so different from Fran, a radical feminist lesbian we met in the previous scene, so Chimo has to be careful to make them seem different.
"At first, my voice was the same," she says, remembering early preview performances at the Music Box Theatre. "It was Fran's voice, and [the Molly character] could've been Fran a few years later. So then for three or four performances, we were just playing about with her voice, and then I found that really nasally sound. I tried to find a voice that was the total opposite of Fran's."
She's also given Molly a very clear intention--- to stick up for Heidi when her ex-boyfriend talks down to her. "I like that about her, and I didn't discover that until we got in front of the audience," Chimo says.
The balance of physical choices and playable actions also helps her delineate between her roles in the first and second acts. Whereas Fran and Molly are liberal lesbians fighting for their rights, April (a talk show host) and Betsy (a homemaker) are firmly settled in the establishment. "Betsy especially is happy with her husband and her situation, so I realized that's why she can make these quips and digs about single women," Chimo says, describing her encounter with Heidi at a baby shower. "Because it's easy for her! She won the lottery!"
Notice, though, that Chimo views Betsy's behavior through the lens of her personal contentment. That gives her a specific perspective, and it keeps a funny supporting role from becoming a broad caricature.
Those details are especially important for a character like April, a 1980s talk show host who features Heidi, her ex, and her best male friend on the same episode. Since she's literally running things, April has plenty of room to make sly little comments about her guests and speak directly to the audience as though we're sitting in her studio. It would be easy for her to become a Sally Jesse stereotype.
"I have to remember her point of view," Chimo says. "She has a purpose, and she's a pioneer woman in her own right. She's the host of a talk show in 1982, and that was not very common for a woman then. So I like to think that she's very ambitious and very aggressive because she had to be. She keeps going back to Heidi, and the men won't let her talk, and it's frustrating."
As we watch the talk show host, however, we may notice that for all her individuality, she shares a crucial trait with Chimo's other characters. April, Betsy, Molly, and Fran know exactly who they are, which both sets them apart from Heidi and helps the actress bring them to life. "Each woman sits in her power and lives in her power," Chimo says. "And that makes them all really fun to play."
Mark Blankenship edits TDF Stages
Photo by Joan Marcus