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How Do You Adjust to a New Family?

Date: Aug 05, 2016

Original Curious Incident cast member Enid Graham reflects on her two-year journey


Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time closes on September 4, Enid Graham will have played the part of Judy about 800 times -- and that's not even including previews. "It's an astounding number of performances," says the actress, the only principal cast member to stay with the Tony-winning drama for its entire Broadway run. "For someone like me who doesn't do musicals, this kind of long-running show is an absolute once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The longest I had done before this was six months!"

She's right about this play's remarkable staying power. It tells the story of Christopher, a teenage boy on the autism spectrum (though the word "autism" is never used in the script) whose attempt to solve a crime leads him to a new relationship with his family, and it is one the longest-running Broadway play of the last 10 years. It also garnered five Tony Awards in 2015, which cemented its status as a major cultural event.

And yet when Graham's contract first came up for renewal in 2015, she paused. "We had to sign on for year-long blocks; it was alarming," she says. "I did have mixed feelings. In some ways it's hard to do a show for a long time, especially one that asks so much of its cast. It's not an easy show to do. And I was also very sad to see some of my castmates leave. I couldn't even imagine how we were going to do that."

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead about Graham's character

In particular, Graham was concerned about losing her onstage family: Ian Barford as her estranged husband, Ed, and the two young men who alternated in the leading role of Christopher, her teenage son -- Taylor Trensch and Tony winner Alex Sharp. "In all that time working together, you kind of begin to inhabit an alternate universe that feels very real to you," she says. "Alex and Taylor are like my sons. Even though I know they're not, it kind of is true somewhere in my heart. When they left, I wasn't sure how we were going to make that turn."

And yet as a real-life mom to three boys with actor husband Robert Sella, she knew that, regardless of her trepidation, she couldn't turn down such a sweet, steady gig. "Ultimately I realized that the opportunity to stay in this really classy and nice paying job was the right choice. It's amazing how many people you meet at the stage door whose story this play tells in some fashion -- it's a very special project to be in."

Since the action of the play is filtered through Christopher's sensory-sensitive reality, it often eschews naturalism in favor of meticulously choreographed sequences that convey his murky emotions. Ensemble members transform into inanimate objects like doors, lights pulsate and change color, sounds blare, and, at one point, Christopher literally walks up the walls with the help of his cast mates. "It's not like doing Long Day's Journey, where today I'll go to the table and get a drink, but tomorrow I may sit there and read the paper," Graham says. "We are constricted. We know we have to step into the box of light on this specific word for this short scene that's only four-lines long. There are a lot of technical requirements and not much room for being as free as you might normally be in a regular play. So the differences with the new cast are subtle."


But they do exist, especially in the way the characters relate to one another. "Take Ian, who played the dad originally: We had decided that Christopher's parents were kind of more connected at the end of the play," remembers Graham. "There was a warmth between them. Andrew [Long]'s dad is more combative, and our relationship stays more difficult and prickly throughout. It's a perfectly valid decision; there's nothing wrong with doing it that way. It's just different. By adjusting, you discover new things."

Of course the bulk of her interactions are with her son, played primarily by Tyler Lea, with Benjamin Wheelwright tackling the role at select performances. "I always had two different sons who were very different to play with, so we already had a lot of flexibility in there," she says. "Alex was the most imperious and kind of snotty and combative Christopher. It was easier to be very angry with him, and sometimes it felt very justified! Taylor was much more fragile. You had to hold him with kid gloves. Tyler is more in the Taylor vein, so things are gentler and more delicate. It's been fun and interesting to mine out those little things. In some ways I've enjoyed the second year more than the first as the pressure is off. I loved the first year of course, the ups and downs, the opening and the Tonys. It was a thrill ride! But it was stressful. The second year has just been about doing the show."

Although Graham cautions that "you don't want to be around the Barrymore that last week -- there will be a lot of crying," she is also excited to move on to new things. The Texas native won a Theatre World Award and was nominated for a Tony for her Broadway debut in 1998's Honour, and since then she's worked regularly on stage and screen, notably as Michael Shannon's conservative Christian wife on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. She doesn't know what's next, but she's glad her sons, ages 5, 9, and 11, got to see her in Curious before it closes.

"It's such a great show for older kids," she says. "There is a hero kid going through a journey, and that's always exciting for children to see. And it is so visually interesting, there's not just language to hook you into the story. My older kids saw it back when it opened. My youngest son, now 5, saw it for the first time a few weeks ago. He's still really too young for it but I wanted him to see it before it was all over. Lots of times I'm in plays my boys can't see! So this was a fun one to do. Our cast is filled with parents. There are 19 kids among us, five born since January! We have this joke: 'The Curious Incident of the Actors Who Didn't Know How Poor They Were So They Kept Having Children.' As a mom, I love this play. Yes, it's about a kid with special needs, but it's really about any kind of parenting. How you make mistakes over and over and over again, and just keep trying. I feel like it's a real love letter to parenting."


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Top image: Enid Graham. Photos by Joan Marcus

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