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Two-time Tony nominee Johanna Day talks about starring in the nonlinear play Joan
Last fall when Johanna Day's agent called her about doing Stephen Belber's new play Joan, she immediately shut him down. "I said, 'No, I'm not doing it, and don't send it to me because I know I'll like it because it's Stephen Belber,'" she recalls. A lauded stage vet (Tony nominations for Sweat and Proof; an Obie Award for Appropriate) who also does TV (she has a recurring role as Admiral Ellen Hill on Madame Secretary), Day hadn't taken a significant break in years. So after she wrapped up The Nap on Broadway in November, she hoped to enjoy some time off. "The plan was to take care of my body and do a lot of physical therapy," she says. "I'm 100 years old [in truth, she's about half that] and I still think I'm an athlete of some kind and I just keep hurting myself."
Then over the Thanksgiving holiday, Belber -- an old friend from their days collaborating on his drama Carol Mulroney in Boston -- sent her an email asking her to reconsider. "I think I wrote back, 'Fuck you -- send me the play,'" Day says laughing. As she predicted, once she read it she quickly signed on as the title character in Joan, which is having its world premiere at HERE Arts Center produced by up-and-coming theatre company Colt Coeur.
It's understandable that Day couldn't pass up this opportunity. A consummate character actress, she has played a wide variety of parts in her 25-plus-year career. Yet Joan lets her do something she rarely gets a chance to: be the lead. She's on stage for the entire 100 minutes of this one-act, which sketches Joan's life from childhood to deathbed in vivid scenes that hop around in time and place. One minute, she and her younger brother Charlie (Adam Harrington, who plays all the men in Joan's orbit) are adolescents in the '60s, standing atop a suburban woodpile, overwhelmed by the view of the world around them. Soon, he's playing her future husband as they meet-cute at a wedding in the '90s. Then it's back to childhood, as a teenage Joan clashes with her dying mother (Marjan Neshat, who plays all the women characters). A few scenes later, Joan, a freelance photographer, is looking for subjects in '00s in the Middle East, where she meets Neshat who becomes her guide and lover.
Incredibly, all this shifting never gets confusing. Belber's script is always clear about where they are in the timeline, and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt helps Harrington and Neshat delineate their many roles. Even though Day only plays Joan, she seemingly has the biggest acting challenge. She has to flesh out this complicated woman (at one point, Joan describes herself as "rootless, promiscuous and sarcastic") without the support of a linear narrative. It's fitting that Joan is a shutterbug because watching her story unfold in this manner feels like flipping through a family photo album, each image evoking a different memory. You need to see all the snapshots in order to get the full picture.
"It is the hardest play I've ever done on very many levels," Day admits, noting the cast only had 16 rehearsals before previews began. "I've never experienced anything like it. I go from 22 to 10 to 60 to 40. The concentration level it takes is insane, but it's such a beautifully written play about love and loss. It's a very intense ride."
Day says she, Campbell-Holt and Belber were all on the same page about how she should approach playing Joan at different ages, especially as a child. "It's about changing my attitude, not my voice," she says. "I think that would be weird, speaking really differently or using a high pitch to show she's a kid. The way Stephen has written it, Joan's personality is so clear throughout. She's just a big, big life force, you know? I really like her. I would probably be Joan's friend if she would have me."
Joan also has multiple moments when she steps out of the action and speaks directly to the audience, notably at the outset and end. Day and the creative team talked a lot about how to tackle these out-of-time monologues. "We had to figure out, where is she when she's telling this story? Where are the memories coming from?" Day says. "In the middle of rehearsals, we changed the whole concept of the beginning. Now it starts and ends in a hospital."
Day made her name doing new plays, so she's used to being part of that frenzied creative process, when every day brings fresh ideas. "I love interpreting new plays because you get to be such a bigger part of it," she says. "It's absolutely my favorite, favorite thing, and this play, it's pretty one-of-a-kind man. I started out downtown before I was in Equity. I miss it. I can't afford to do it that much, especially now that I'm single and there's nobody else throwing money my way. But Off and Off-Off-Broadway is where the brilliant stuff is. This play is a bird's-eye view of a beautiful life, and all the sadness and heartache that comes along with being on the planet. And I get to kiss both my costars. I just love it."
Top image: Adam Harrington and Johanna Day in Joan. Photos by Robert Altman.
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