Donna Murphy: The People in Her Pictures
By Ellis Nassour
Tony and Drama Desk winner Donna Murphy, not unexpectedly, is giving one of the most acclaimed performances of the season in Roundabout’s Iris Rainer Dart/Mike Stoller/Artie Butler’s musical The People in the Picture.
In an apt tribute to the musical, Murphy has transformed the sitting area of her Studio 54 dressing room into a beautifully-framed and mounted gallery of paintings and photos of the people in her "picture": vintage family photos, snapshots of friends and photos of she and husband Shawn Elliott with their daughter Darmia Hope and stepdaughters Justine and Ivy.
Some span several generations, just as in the show her character spans three generations, seguing from young, vibrant Raisel, the darling of the Yiddish theeatre in pre-war through Nazi-occupied Poland [1935-1946]; desperate war/death camp survivor; and, over 30 years later, ill/confused grandmother Bubbie in NY.
Murphy’s often asked about her transitions from old-to-young and vice versa that happen miraculously right under our eyes – sometimes right in the middle of a sentence. Not only that, but there are a number of quick changes right onstage.
"It was more difficult in rehearsals," she says, "even though our wonderful director Leonard Foglia tried to schedule working in a logical manner. But rehearsals are rehearsals. They’re a period of discovery and not always linear and logical. It wasn’t always easy to let go of the intensity at the end of each day. Now that we’re onstage, the arc is there. It feels organic and is one of my favorite aspects of inhabiting this character."
Bubbie has a loving relationship with her granddaughter who’s fascinated with the stories she passes on from her youth; but the mother/daughter relationship is much more difficult since Red [her daughter] will do anything to keep from looking back.
Book and lyrics are by best-selling author Dart, whose Beaches not only became an international best seller but also a cult movie classic. Kudos for the score must go to rock/pop legends Stoller and Butler, who have amassed shelves of gold and platinum selling smashes. [You might have caught Stoller, paying a visit to American Idol on Wednesday night, as the four remaining hopefuls sang some of his and Jerry Leiber’s rock ‘n roll chart-toppers.]
In the affecting second act, there’re so much sobbing from the story of a mother forced to give up her daughter to save her from the death camps, that Kleenex should be handing out little tissue packages. It’s hard to imagine anyone with dry eyes after three back-to-back, highly sentimental songs, "Saying Goodbye," "Child of My Child" and the reprise of "Remember Who You Are."
"Those were such unspeakably hard times," explains Murphy, "filled with every imaginable emotion. Now, with a daughter [in addition to step-children], I cannot fathom what hell that must have been. It’s wonderfully satisfying to know that, like Raisel, many parents were reunited with their children. Of course, much sadder, many more were not."
Murphy said she was fascinated with the history of families in the ghettos faced with the choice of whether or not to place their children with Christian families in order to give them a chance of survival.
She gleamed background from the PBS doc Irena Sendler, in the Name of Their Mothers, the story of Polish women who risked their lives to save thousands of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. Sendler was captured, tortured and barely escaped death. She hide over 2,500 children.
"Most of the children survived," Murphy points out, "and were reunited with their families. For decades in Communist Poland, neither the children nor their protectors could tell their stories. The documentary features the last interviews Irena gave before her death in 2008 at the age of 98."
After this tearjerker, Murphy should fulfill a life-long dream and do Mame! With her amazing gift for physical comedy, so brilliantly displayed in the Wonderful Town revival, she’d be the ideal to coax the blues right out of the horn, charm the husk right off of the corn, and having the whole plantation’s hummin’ and make that weepin’ willow tree smile!
TPITP has an outstanding featured cast, namely the always-dependable Joyce Van Patten in a delightful comic turn as a fading actress who refuses to fade; Alexander Gemignani as a homosexual actor who comes to Raisel’s rescue, Christopher Innvar as Raisel’s love interest who goes off to Hwood, Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien as Polish vaudevillans, young Rachel Resheff as the granddaughter and the even-younger golden-voiced Andie Mechanic [making her Bway debut but a seasoned vet with roles as Les Miz’s Young Cosette and Annie’s Molly] as Young Red.