Talking to Mary Beth Hurt about ‘Rain’ and the Human Footprint
By Isa Goldberg
Andrew Bovell’s “When the Rain Stops Falling” is a complex drama set over four generations of two families between 1959 and 2039.
With the constant deluge of rain as a constant, the play creates a universe fueled by acts that are antithetical to nature – human nature included. The psychological mystery is intriguing in so far as it calls on the audiences’ ability to tie together relationships between characters of different generations, many of whom have the same name and live on different continents over diverse periods in time. It is Mary Beth Hurt’s expert ability to move the story along using minimal gestures and silences that reveals an essential and inextricable connection.
How did you get interested in acting, given that you grew up in a fairly remote part of the country?
I think I was born an actress. I was always making shows and having my sisters and my friends play parts in them. My mother took us to see plays in Des Moines and I enjoyed that, but it didn’t dawn on me that it was something that I could do. It wasn’t until I saw a play at our high school – I must have been in the eighth grade – that I realized then that it was something you could do.
I’ve read that Jean Seberg, also a native of Marshalltown Iowa, was your childhood babysitter.
One of them. I mean she was just a neighborhood kid.
Well, can you tell me about that?
We lived on a street named Summit Street which was between 6th and 7th. And the Seborgs lived on 6th Street. Her father was a pharmacist and my grandfather was a pharmacist, so the families had known each other for a while.
But I was aware of what was going on. I suppose it would be sort of like meeting politicians. You see young kids smiling and they’re grabbing at Obama’s hand, for instance. There’s not a lot of consciousness about that person. And Marshalltown went sort of crazy with Jean Seberg. I remember there was a parade. She came back from shooting Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan,” I think. And all the kids just ran outside.
You often play offbeat parts. What attracts you to these roles?
I’ve never been extremely comfortable playing the lead in a play.
Why is that?
I don’t like the responsibility; there’s a feeling that I have to be good. Besides, I found secondary parts much more interesting especially when I was younger and the ingénue roles were pretty bland. I never felt very beautiful, or incredibly smart or witty, so I was always looking for something about them that intrigued me. And I would sort of twist that character in a way because I remember thinking that an ingénue character doesn’t ever think they’re an ingénue. They think they’re a person and they have idiosyncrasies. Those idiosyncrasies interested me.
In “When the Rain Stops Falling” specifically, you’re on the stage for long periods of time without speaking at all, just reflecting. But through your silences some of the play’s most revealing moments occur. How do you achieve that?
It takes time. I believe that every movement you make has to express the character’s essence, especially in a play like “Rain” where the character I play, the Older Elizabeth, tends to be silent. And because of the play’s structure, where one scene flows into another, I’ve looked for ways to stay in the scene, or put an end to my part of the scene that lingers rather than just being left sitting on stage.
Right. That’s her role in life to be silent…
So, that’s what you do – movements need to project where the character is. Because there is so little obviousness about this mother’s love for her son, I’ve added things. Like in the scene where the Older Elizabeth gets a letter from Gabriel. I read it and afterwards I would just take the letter and in the fade out put it back in my pocket. Instead of doing that now, I read the letter and there are only two places where I smile and then after I’ve read it, I fold the letter and hold it to my lips in as ordinary a way as possible. It helps me deal with how much she loves this boy in her own fashion. And if somebody in the audience gets it and it helps them…
It does help me a lot; I thought she was sort of an iconic character because mothers are so often the brunt of everyone’s anger. Mothers are always guilty. So what I saw was how much this intellectually lively, sophisticated individual has to stuff it down all the time. She has to keep her feelings and needs from ever being the issue…
I think, because she had to have the strength to do what she was doing, and that was the only way she knew how to do it. She sacrificed a tremendous amount. Now whether or not you agree with how she decided to do it is the audience member’s choice, but I just wanted the audience not to have a completely one-sided picture.
“Rain” is about troubled family lives. It’s a landscape you’ve worked in from your film debut in Woody Allen’s “Interiors” to your Tony-nominated role in “Crimes of the Heart.” What is it that draws you to these family dramas?
Probably the family drama of it. I think it’s infinite what goes on in families, and it’s what fascinates me. That’s it really. I think there are an infinite number of ways that people are interesting, other than by being special or on the verge of an explosive moment in their lives whether that’s sexual or intellectual. The everyday is intriguing to me.
You walk down the street and you see people and you realize that every person who’s walking down the street chose the clothing they’re going to wear for the day. It means you’ve costumed yourself, and that you’re presenting yourself in a way that you want the world to see you. And I find that fascinating, more fascinating really than the gold medal moments. It’s the secondary things. Let’s have a look at what’s not red, but what is burnt amber or something.
But I also love doing comedy.
To what do you attribute that versatility?
My father was a wonderful storyteller and had a terrific sense of humor. And I think that that is where that comes from. When I talk to my sister on the phone, we can wet our pants laughing at ridiculous things, totally ridiculous things. And I just couldn’t get through life without a sense of humor. It would be too much.
Are there any roles you’re dying to play?
No. And really that never happened. When I was younger I thought I wanted to play Shaw’s “Saint Joan” – when people asked me that question. But I didn’t want it enough to try to make it happen. It’s really just something that comes along that appeals to you. The last two things that I’ve done, this and “Top Girls,” are so beautifully written – so compact and concise.
“Rain” in particular is such a musical play because of all the repetition of sounds, the stories that are told over and over, like the line about people “drowning in Bangladesh.” And I think that it’s also on a very real human level about the things we pass on to people that we father and mother. I’ve read that infants in the womb mirror the gestures of their parents.
How interesting is that.
Yah. I think we pass these things down. We pass attitudes. We pass genetics. And the idea even that a phrase would be passed, it seems completely possible. I say things that my parents said that are very Iowan.
I was thinking at one point when we were talking earlier, if I were to choose between seeing “Star Wars” which I like very much and a film called “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” – an Italian film probably 25 years ago, maybe more – while I enjoy them both tremendously, the one that I would want to see more is “The Tree of Wooden Clogs.”
Why is that?
It has to do with regular people and the drama that exists in them. Minutia.
“When the Rain Stops Falling”
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through April 18th.
Performances are Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go to the box office or visit telecharge.com.
Photo Credit: T. Charles Eickson