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Inside a crucial character in The Present
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles.
The Present is full of big talkers, so at first, we might overlook Sophia. Quiet and observant, she slips around the corners of the play, which Andrew Upton has adapted from an early Chekhov drama. She mostly just watches as her friends celebrate Anna, a war widow who's turning 40 with a party at her Russian country estate. She mostly just listens as everyone frets about their place in a changing society, or else tries to ignore their dread by dancing, drinking, and fooling around.
But don't mistake her reticence for blankness. By the end of this production, which is now on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Sophia reveals her buried passion. Though she might seem like a happy housewife, married to a boring-but-decent man named Sergei, she has not forgotten her earlier life, when she was a doctor doing relief work in Africa. She has not forgotten her earlier heart, which belonged to Mikhail, who is also at the birthday party.
With Mikhail suddenly back in her life, Sophia rediscovers her former self. Eventually, her discovery dominates the play, so that what started as a funny lark about the privileged and aimless ends as a scorching reminder that we can miss what's happening just two chairs away.
None of this works, of course, unless the actor playing Sophia can communicate her inner life, even when she isn't talking. That's the challenge for Jacqueline McKenzie, who's making her Broadway debut after originating the role at Australia's Sydney Theatre Company. (The entire production has traveled from Australia, with Cate Blanchett starring as Anna.)
Watching McKenzie's performance, it's clear her character doesn't quite fit in. For instance, when someone slams a table during a boisterous conversation, she's the only one who looks terrified. When other people move lazily through a room, she hurries along, as though there's something urgent beyond the door.
For McKenzie, this behavior in rooted in Sophia's work amidst violent conflicts overseas. "Of course she jumps when someone slams the table," she says. "She's used to being in a damn war zone! That might mean a bomb. Working in those places, they're working on adrenaline, and they're high on it. They're in a state of panic all the time."
The way the actress sees it, Sophia married Sergei in an attempt to have a peaceful life back home. "Now she's in a country house gardening," she says. "But how do you do that? How do you slot back into a normal life? She's used to being empowered. She's used to being the boss of her own clinic where she trains locals to be nurses. Now she's come back here, and she's got to fit in and be a wifey. And on one hand that's welcome, but the first sign that [the old life] could come back – that first little flicker of excitement – is when she sees Mikhail. It doesn't take much."
To get her mind around Sophia's backstory, McKenzie researched organizations like Doctors Without Borders. She also watched a documentary called Living in Emergency, which featured Dr. Christopher Brasher, a fellow Australian who had spent ten years working in Africa himself.
"He told me he was sitting at a party in Paris after coming out of 10 years in Africa," she recalls. "He's just sitting there when everyone's talking, and all he could think was, 'God, how do sewers work in this town?' It got him thinking about the infrastructure you don't have in some African cities. Your mind starts going that way, and you can't turn it off."
No wonder, then, that with Mikhail around to remind her of the past, Sophia's loses her calm exterior. No wonder McKenzie inches her closer and closer toward drastic action until, finally, there's no going back. "It's all still there," the actress says. "Her passion and identity are just beneath the surface."
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Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Jacqueline McKenzie (as Sophia) and Chris Ryan (as Sergei)