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Babe Bottrell has a lot to answer for: attempted murder of her husband, furtive affair with a 15-year-old boy, some ear-splitting notes on the saxophone.
Plus, Babe is the one responsible for turning Lily Rabe into an actress. Actually, this last transgression has been an inarguably good thing: Rabe’s incandescent performance as Babe, the cracked Southern belle at the center of Beth Henley’s 1981 modern classic Crimes of the Heart, is now lighting up the Roundabout’s charming revival, directed by Kathleen Turner.
Rabe first encountered Babe at a summer arts program in Connecticut, where she was teaching ballet to younger girls but was spotted by the program’s acting instructor. He persuaded her to appear in the final performance—and not as a dancer.
“I wasn’t even taking the acting class there, but he gave me this pile of monologues and said, ‘Take a look at these,’ ” recalls Rabe. The monologue she chose, from Henley’s play about three quirky sisters in Hazelhurst, Miss., turned out to be pivotal.
“It was that moment, performing that monologue, that made me think, ‘Maybe this is what I wanna do,’ ” says Rabe. It was also a key moment in winning over her parents, playwright David Rabe (Hurlyburly) and actress Jill Clayburgh, who had mixed feelings about their daughter following them into show business.
“When I was very young, they discouraged me from acting professionally,” Rabe recalls. “They wanted to protect me from it—I mean, I can imagine wanting to protect your child from this impossible profession. But once I found it on my own, and it was clear there was really no other option, they were completely there for me. And they were relieved that maybe I had some talent.”
After graduating from Northwestern, Rabe went on to star on Broadway in Steel Magnolias and Heartbreak House. Though she says she’s not the sort of actress who has a list of great roles she feels obligated to take on in an organized way, she admits, “I had this special place in my heart for Babe.” So when she heard that Williamstown Theatre Festival was reviving Crimes last summer, she and a friend, actor Sarah Paulson, actively lobbied for the roles of Babe and Meg, respectively.
And though Babe is certainly a woman of mixed qualities, Rabe, like many actors portraying complicated characters, looks on the bright side.
“Someone asked me yesterday in a talkback, ‘Do you think Babe is crazy?’ ” Rabe says. “I said, ‘Oh, God, no!’ When you’re in it, you’re not judging your circumstances. Babe is such a survivor. Sometimes she may connect the dots wrong—she may go from A to B to H—but she’s just trying to move forward.”
Rabe pauses to qualify.
“I don’t think she thinks very far ahead,” she says of a character who indeed seems as likely to try out a saxophone as a hanging rope. “She’s very impulsive and in the moment. That’s what attracted me to her from the beginning: She has such an open spirit; she’s so positive and generous. She may be going to jail for shooting her husband, but she’s not thinking about that—she’s hoping her lawyer Barnette wins his vendetta, and that her sister Lennie can have a great boyfriend.”
She notes that just as she can’t judge a character she’s playing, she can’t always predict when—or if—audiences will laugh at a dramatic comedy like Crimes.
“Sometimes those laughs are just enormous, with people hooting and hollering,” Rabe says. “Other times people have told me, ‘I was laughing so much, but it was an inner laughter.’ The wonderful thing about the humor in the play is that it’s not a sure thing—they’re not laugh lines. It’s nuanced. That’s what’s so beautiful about the play—it teeters on that line, as does life, between comedy and tragedy.”
With Steel Magnolias, Rabe recounts, she sometimes did a double-take when people referred to it as a comedy.
“I would say, ‘I guess it is,’ ” Rabe recalls, laughing. “Like life, it’s both funny and sad.”