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Judith Ivey's Happy Mourning

Date: Nov 01, 2012


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles


Judith Ivey knows things about her latest character that even the playwrights didn't know. Or rather, she's intuited things, and just because they're not explicitly stated in the script doesn't mean they can't shape her performance.

A two-time Tony Award winner, Ivey is back on Broadway in a revival of  The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's enduring play about Catherine Sloper (Jessica Chastain), a young woman in 19th-century New York who thwarts the dismissive cruelty of her father (David Strathairn) and the duplicitous advances of a greedy suitor (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens) to take control of her own life. Her victory comes with a cost, since she ends alone and hardened, but the play suggests she might be better off that way---that loneliness might be better than being used.

However, to complicate that perspective, the show, which is based on Henry James' 1880 novella Washington Square, also features Catherine's recently widowed aunt, Lavinia Penniman (Ivey.) Though she's dressed in the black pageantry of mourning, Mrs. Penniman refuses to be weighed down by her life. She also encourages Catherine to chase after love, even if the man isn't a saint.

"Not to be corny, but if you've got lemons, make lemonade," Ivey says. "She's the person who sees the glass half full. She's clearly the romantic in the play, and she recognizes the ability to be romantic in Catherine. I wanted to make sure there was a bright light and this positive soul."

Starting from that basic sensibility, Ivey did her own research to deepen her performance.

She explains, "At one point, I was talking about a book I've carried around for years called Born to Rebel [by Frank J. Sulloway], and it's about birth order and how that affects your personality. They really deal with it in terms of threes, and here, to our knowledge, we have Dr. Sloper, Mrs. Almond [a supporting character], and Mrs. Penniman---three siblings. I felt that Mrs. Penniman must be the baby, even though in the novella she's, I believe, the second born of the three. But I chose to let her be the baby because her personality fits that profile in this book: They're terribly charming and trying to make everybody happy and keep everybody together. I thought it was a great way to go about settling on how she fits in the family."

Ivey also let her co-stars influence her choices. In one early scene, for instance, she saw that Chastain was bringing vulnerability to a conversation with Mrs. Penniman about Catherine's lovability. That changed Ivey's approach to certain lines. "Maybe I thought it was a funny moment, but as rehearsal evolved, I said, 'You know, I'm gonna toss that out. That doesn't need to be funny there. I want it be a tender moment, a caring moment.'"

After several weeks of preview performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Ivey has continued to learn things about her character's outlook. "There's a maturity to her that can get lost in the sillier side," she says. "That's something, going into it, that I wasn't as aware of and began to discover once we began to rehearse. Her wonderful line at the end of the play---'Life can be very long for a woman alone'---that's somebody who knows something. She's the one who carries the positive torch, but she knows something."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus