Even when the plays at the annual O’Neill Playwrights’ Conference don’t excite anyone, the actors often do. One of the stars of this summer’s conference, playing three different brands of Italian womanhood, was Mary McDonnell, an actress previously unknown even to many of her colleagues at the O’Neill. To those who have followed her extraordinary work in New York over the last few years, McDonnell is a secret it’s getting harder to keep. I remember vividly first seeing her in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child as Shelley, the giggly, hippie-chick girlfriend of the youngest son; the only character onstage not part of the family circle, she seemed literally to be acting at a different speed from the others, a walking 45 in a roomful of long-playing records. The performance had such a distinctive rhythm that it seemed ingrained, a quality McDonnell would be hired to demonstrate again and again. But in Emily Mann’s Still Life, for which she won an Obie in 1981, she played a woman with a different metabolism, the unschooled battered wife of a Vietnam veteran whose simplicity and hesitant responses belied a life that has been torn up at the roots. Most recently she appeared at the Circle Rep in what would normally be the thankless role of the Nazi war criminal’s wife in Michael Cristofer’s Black Angel. Out of very little, McDonnell created two stunning moments: a shockingly raw cry of anguish when she realized that her husband would never forgive himself for his past deeds, and a quiet composure that made the play’s final monologue – which ends “With love the chance of survival is very slight; with hate you can go on forever” – simply devastating.

Now McDonnell can be seen in Kathleen Tolan’s A Weekend Near Madison, which premiered last spring at the Actors Theater of Louisville and opens this week at the Astor Place. Here she plays Vanessa Carmichael, the Holy Near-like figurehead of the women’s music movement who arrives with her young lesbian lover Sammy for a weekend visit with her college friends David, his wife Doe, and Jim, David’s brother and Nessa’s former boyfriend. The play charts the slipping and sliding of the four friends’ political alliance, especially the chasm that has opened up between men and political women. Again McDonnell creates her own performance rhythm to capture the various facets of a woman who sees the world in terms of her own coming out. She walks a thin line between an old life and a new one, straining to be conciliatory yet unyielding while point out to David that his suicidal teenage patient might be better off at a women-only concert than crying over the phone to a sexist shrink who draws strength from her illness. One minute she’s pleasantly explaining the needs for women to withdraw from men’s company, the next she’s asking her ex-boyfriend to father a child she and her woman lover will raise, and when someone points out her contradictions she snaps, “Oh, so what!” and laughs. A poisonous caricature could have been made of a lesbian separatist who wants a child, but McDonnell makes her sympathetic without sacrificing the seriousness or extremity of her commitments.

Offstage McDonnell is the center of a fascinating circle of personal and professional relationships. A Weekend Near Madison is directed by Emily Mann, who wrote and directed Still Life and whose husband Gerry Bamman played Torvald to McDonnell’s Nora in A Doll’s House last year in Portland. Playwright Tolan is a close friend of actress Timothy Near, who also appeared in Still Life and whose sister Holly is the model of Vanessa Carmichael. And Jim, the character Nessa rejects in Weekend, is played by Randle Mell, McDonnell’s fiancé. McDonnell enjoys being part of such a community. Indeed, she has always sought it out. Born in Wilkes-Barre, and raised in Ithaca, she helped create the theater department at SUNY Fredonia. She spent a year with a student rep company in England playing mostly character roles because she was the tallest actor around. She moved to New York in 1977, sold Fuller Brush in Rockefeller Center, did under-fives on the soaps, and, after appearing once at Theater for the New City, auditioned by chance for Buried Child. That play ran for a year and opened a world of professional opportunities that McDonnell found “overwhelming.”

“It’s really important for actors to feel that they’re more than something for hire,” she said recently over breakfast in Chelsea. “We’re not encouraged to think of ourselves as having a point of view. But I realized I needed to encounter material that asked questions I needed to ask of myself, and also I had to work with people who felt the same way.” So she has worked several times with Mann and director Robert Woodruff, done three plays at the American Place Theater, recently joined the Circle Rep company, agreed to do a play at the Second Stage this winter directed by Andre Gregory, whom she acted with in A Doll’s House. She’s reluctant to let any good experience go. Still Life, for instance, began at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, played here at the American Place, and last summer was repeated at the Taper in Los Angeles. “Sometimes I feel the need to go back into Still Life,” McDonnell said, “because the confrontational aspect was so strong. It taught me the power of the theater – to confront a sea of faces and make decisions every moment, when you see resistance, whether to try to break through or move on. You got the sense of theater taking place in that moment.”

From A Weekend Near Madison, McDonnell unexpectedly learned first-hand the alienation gay couples experience. “I’ve played a lot of victimized women – most parts for women have lots of problems. But this one was happy. So it was very different meeting people afterwards. After seeing me as Cheryl in Still Life or Sylvia Plath in Letters Home, people would throw their arms around you and say, ‘Oh, the pain!’” McDonnell laughed and tossed her long, long brown hair. “After this play, people stare at you from across the room. Finally, they come over and say, ‘You did a fabulous job – too bad you had to play her.’ It shocked me, you know,” she said, pressing her hands to her chest, “because this character is the closest to me of any I’ve played.”

Village Voice, September 20, 1983