“If you can get over the Edward Albee myth and intimidation, he’s very approachable,” director Pam MacKinnon tells me over a Bitburger beer at Pigalle, a restaurant in the theatre district around the corner from the Walter Kerr Theatre, where her Tony-winning production of Clybourne Park is wrapping up its Broadway run. She’s worked with Albee consistently since 2002, when she did the regional premiere of The Play About the Baby at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and has since been entrusted with increasingly high-profile productions of the revered playwright’s works, both old and new.
MacKinnon, who at 44 is only slightly more than half Albee’s age, got her professional start in the early days of Clubbed Thumb, the Manhattan company that bills itself as a purveyor of “funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers.” She cut her teeth directing plays by the likes of Charles L. Mee and Erin Courtney, and relishes the collaborative process of working with playwrights. It would be hard to find a director who takes more seriously her responsibility to honor the writer’s intent, whether the writer in question is the notoriously opinionated Albee, Clybourne Park’s Bruce Norris (who shares Albee’s prickly reputation as a collaborator), rising stars like Itamar Moses or others.
“If you go off the rails and fail to honor a playwright’s intent, you’re going to get in trouble really quickly,” believes MacKinnon, a tall, Chicago-born brunette who moves with a jogger’s athleticism and punctuates her arguing points with eye contact and a willing smile. “I’m a big fan of mining deep what’s on the page. You can’t go as deeply unless you obey the letter and spirit of the law.” MacKinnon, whose academic background in economics and political science seems mostly peripheral to her chosen profession, says this with a point-blank simplicity that indicates she thinks of it as a given. She’s not attracted to high concepts that compete with a play’s narrative, but rather the rhythms of the words and how they build the story. When she first reads a script, she makes little marks next to passages that excite her. “It’s important that the language be muscular, and that the act of speaking is a physical act,” she notes with a gesture of specificity.
When she was reading Norris’s biting satire about racial discord and real estate for the first time, MacKinnon put one of those marks on page 14 of her Clybourne Park script, when the minister character begins to talk to Russ, the white homeowner, about his deceased son, a veteran of the Korean War, being an American hero. “He says, ‘Nothing changes that,’ and that’s when my story ear went ‘Oh, we’re onto something! I wonder if that seed will grow.’” It does grow, of course, to illuminate Norris’s sardonic point that cross-racial communication in the stereotypical ’60s has failed to improve a single iota in our own equally contentious era.
Her notes on Albee texts have proved similarly prescient. Albee, who’s famous for his single-draft style, was toying with the idea of expanding his first play, The Zoo Story, when he enlisted MacKinnon to direct. “Hartford Stage offered him a commission, and he was wondering what to write,” the director explains. “I think with The Zoo Story it was two things. One-act plays don’t get produced as much. They used to, but you have to pair them with something.” The Zoo Story was originally produced alongside Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Hartford talked about pairing it with other works, perhaps a Pinter play or, “since Edward is now the senior writer, maybe a Will Eno play or Stephen Belber,” MacKinnon adds.
Ultimately, Albee wanted to pair The Zoo Story with something he wrote himself, and although it has played on double bills with The American Dream in the past, he realized he had something more to say about the earlier play’s characters. “I think he recognized as an older writer that he didn’t give enough time to Peter—the man on the bench is an interesting cipher, but I think that as Albee grew older, that man became more valid to him. He wanted to give Peter something, so that we know more about what he’s going through, even though Jerry is the primary speaker in The Zoo Story.”
The expanded play that resulted, Peter and Jerry, played both in Hartford and in New York City at Second Stage Theatre, solidifying MacKinnon’s standing friendship with the playwright and further clarifying the shorthand the collaborators had developed for working together in rehearsals. “Edward tries to come to the first read-through to hear the play. What I love about having him in rehearsal early on is not so much what he says but how he says it. For the actors who maybe don’t know him, it gives them a sense of who he is. He’s sly, and he has this great sense of humor, and is incredibly generous, but the transcript of what he’s saying doesn’t always belie that. It’s great to have a real intellect but a subtle sense of humor going on at all times.”
This has been especially true, MacKinnon says, of her current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee’s classic verbal tour de force of sly wit that, some three weeks after she and I talked, opened at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street. The idea for the remount was conceived at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2010, marking the first time the actor-centric Chicago company had been given permission to do an Albee play. “It started out as a conversation between me and Molly Smith at Arena—they were going to do an Albee festival, and she wanted me to direct Virginia Woolf. Amy Morton, an actress I’ve known for a long time but never worked with, came to mind for Martha.”
That’s when the revival became a Steppenwolf project, which fit nicely with Arena’s mission statement to host venerable American companies. “Steppenwolf certainly is that, so Molly was amenable to starting it at Steppenwolf,” MacKinnon explains. “The calendar worked perfectly.”
More luck came their way when Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards came to see the show in D.C. “He came because he adores the play and produced August: Osage County—he was coming down to say hi to his professional friends, Tracy [Letts] and Amy, then he fell in love with this production, and he’s a Broadway producer. If you really fall in love with something, it’s your job to then move it.”
It was Richards’s idea to schedule the show’s opening on the exact 50-year anniversary—Oct. 13, 2012—of Virginia Woolf’s original Broadway premiere. Framing it as an event is almost necessary in the current Broadway climate, which remains challenging for straight plays and even more so for ones without celebrity cachet, but MacKinnon sees a substantive reason behind the timing as well. “It’s a way of celebrating our country’s foremost living playwright,” she emphasizes.
That’s a sentiment that’s easy to get behind. And for theatre lovers, MacKinnon’s cast is plenty intriguing. Morton starred in Letts’s Tony-winning August, a grandly modern family drama, and Letts, while now known primarily as the writer of August, Bug and Killer Joe, has considerable acting chops as a Steppenwolf veteran. He starred opposite Parker Posey last year in Yale Repertory Theatre’s premiere of The Realistic Joneses, by Albee protégé Will Eno, which, like Virginia Woolf, is a savage portrait of suburban marriage.
“Tracy’s incredibly smart and a big lover of language,” MacKinnon states with a flash of smile. “He had done Virginia Woolf before in Atlanta [at the Alliance Theatre] more than eight years ago in a production that Amy Morton directed, so on paper it could be a little intimidating: ‘Is Amy going to have better ideas than me?’ But even if she wears both hats, she doesn’t wear them simultaneously. She loves to direct, and I’ve seen her work. But especially with a role like Martha, the acting part is what she had to focus on.” She laughs and add, “It’s a huge emotional and intellectual role.”
MacKinnon remembers a day when Morton remarked on enormity of the work involved in inhabiting the character. “It’s a three-act play, the real deal, and Amy’s big emotional turn is in the third act—but that comes after the time, in any other play’s world, that you’ve already executed the big emotional turn. It’s a marathon. You’re at this 20-mile mark, and there’s 6 more to go? Are you kidding me?” So, like a marathon, it came down to pacing. Albee is such a “musical” writer, MacKinnon reasons, that oftentimes she would feel like a conductor in the rehearsal room making sure the dialogue came out at the right tempo. She realized the importance of the pauses and how to frame the beats, and thus the audience’s reaction to them.
In addition to rhythm, humor is essential to MacKinnon’s aesthetic. “This play can be funny in the way that Beckett is funny, but it has to be funny,” she avows. The same dynamic is true of MacKinnon’s work on Itamar Moses’s autobiographic tale of artistic rivalry The Four of Us, which she helmed in 2008 at Manhattan Theatre Club; the same writer’s Completeness, which debuted at California’s South Coast Repertory in 2011; or of Horton Foote’s Harrison, TX, a compendium of three related works by the late dramatist rife with humor that cuts through rural desperation, mounted to general acclaim this past summer at New York City’s Primary Stages.
Sometimes the laughs vary, depending on geography. There’s a line in the second act of Clybourne Park delivered by gentrifier Steve when he comes back inside the house from dealing with the contractor in the yard. “He says, ‘We’re putting in a koi pond,’” MacKinnon recalls. “In Los Angeles, that didn’t get a laugh at all, whereas in New York it’s one of the biggest laughs. When Amy Morton directed the Steppenwolf production of Clybourne Park, she said it got an even bigger laugh there. It is, of course, Chicago where Lorraine Hansberry located this story, and that makes the notion of a koi pond even crazier, because the permafrost is there for over nine months of the year! Bruce wrote that as a laugh line.”
In the past year-and-a-half, MacKinnon has directed 10 other productions, by her estimation, but there’s something about Virginia Woolf that she considers a special, career-stretching challenge. “In early previews in Chicago, we got great audience response from the get-go. Then, a few performances in, while still rehearsing in the afternoons, we had to make some modulations. The play gets more harrowing, step by step by step, so I had to monitor and put into place the accumulation of all these little wounds that George and Martha inflict on each other—and it took the reactions of an audience to show that we were actually a little too funny and light. That lightness is really important in certain places, but now it has to drop into something else…and live there for a while, and now it drops into something else again.”
Through all their savage put-downs, though, MacKinnon believes that George and Martha love each other: “There’s a lot of love in this couple or they wouldn’t be together.” This is central to her interpretation of the play. She doesn’t see it as a Dance of Death battle royal; she suggests that the play’s meaning can be conveyed by how these verbal spars are played out. “Some of George’s language can be played as bullying, but he’s smarter than that. Almost every beat of the play has some sort of big connective tissue: A barb someone has landed gets rewarded because it’s genuinely funny, and despite the meanness of the humor, they really respect each other’s intellect and intelligence. It was very important to me that this come through.”
Even in the third act, when George brutally destroys the imaginary child they have conjured up to replace the one they never had, MacKinnon perceives an underlining kindness. “The third act is very violent, but George wants his relationship with Martha to continue, and it can’t continue the way it’s been. That’s a big act of love.” Setting too bleak a tone from the play’s start is a trap, MacKinnon warns, that prevents a deeper mining of the play for complexities in the marriage.
For the roles of Nick and Honey, the guests who find themselves in over their heads, MacKinnon went with newcomers Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon, whom she met through auditions held in Chicago. Dirks has been working in Chicago’s fertile storefront theatre scene for years while auditioning for higher-profile productions. “He’s always getting called back, but as the second choice, and this time he’s the first choice—he’s fantastic,” the director attests. Coon, a Midwestern native relatively new to Chicago, had previously landed a role in Regina Taylor’s Magnolia (an updated imagining of The Cherry Orchard) at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre before auditioning for Woolf. These contrasts in the actors’ experience mirror the dynamics in the play, parallels MacKinnon acknowledges. “To have people like Amy and Tracy, who have been in each other’s creative and personal lives for 20 years, and have even played husband and wife on stage many times, and then have the newcomers be newcomers, I don’t have to do much work.”
Of course, she’s being facetious. While she’s overseen many of Albee’s plays— including such tough-to-interpret dramas as A Delicate Balance and The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?—it’s her first time tackling Woolf. “The challenge to me is, ‘How do I climb this mountain with this particular group of actors?’ In the beginning of the rehearsal process of a classic play, you can definitely get a little intimidated and think, ‘Should I watch the Mike Nichols movie?’ or, ‘What is my relationship to what has come before?’ Once you’re in rehearsal and working with the actual people, though, it’s about the text and what they breathe into it. It very quickly becomes tantamount to doing a new play.” It’s this idea of discovery that fuels MacKinnon’s
When Virginia Woolf first went up in Chicago, it was winter, and the playwright didn’t show up until the end of the third week of rehearsal, when he saw a full run through, give or take. “We truncated that process. He came late into rehearsal with a twinkle in his eye, asking, ‘Are there any questions?’—and then he didn’t come back to Chicago for opening or for the entire run.” Between teaching at the University of Houston and attending to business in New York, where he keeps his primary residence, Albee had a full schedule. So when he did make it down to D.C. to see the production at Arena Stage, MacKinnon admits that she was a little nervous. “We checked in after each intermission, but he was really happy with it,” she allows with a shrug of relief.
As we finish our two-hour conversation—MacKinnon has to rush off to the Upper West Side apartment she shares with actor-boyfriend John Procaccino to prepare for a flight to Chicago, where she’ll supervise the final rehearsals before Woolf opens on Broadway—the director reflects on similarities between her most recent writer collaborators.
“Bruce and Edward are good friends, and they know what their plays should sound like, but not look like. They’re both very musical writers. Both Bruce and Edward write a lot of overlapping stuff, and their pauses are important. At the broadest category, they both write smart-people-talking plays.” And, in those “smart-people-talking plays,” decorum and manners count. “There are certain rules that have to be obeyed in a social setting,” MacKinnon acknowledges, hinting at a strength that runs through the body of her work. “George and Martha eventually erode them, but at the beginning, there are actually rules in play.”
One of the rules of being a freelancer is that you’re always looking ahead. “I’m at a
point in my career where theatres are approaching me and asking what I want to do next, so it’s really about having a list of new plays and classics that I want to do,” MacKinnon ventures. “Next? I’m doing a reading of a Playwrights Horizons commission by Jordan Harrison in the fall, and hopefully they’ll want to produce it.”
Christopher Kompanek is a freelance theatre and culture writer.