Mary-Louise Parker is big on Broadway this season: Through Jan. 12, 2020, she stars in Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside as an Ivy League professor who gets entangled with a student. Then in the spring, she’ll star in Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive on Broadway, reprising a role she created Off-Broadway in 1997.
ALLISON CONSIDINE: You started with The Sound Inside at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. What drew you to it?
MARY-LOUISE PARKER: When I spoke it out loud I connected to it a lot more than I thought I would, which is what happened to me the first time I read How I Learned to Drive out loud. I was already so enamored with Adam’s writing and I just thought it was an opportunity to play someone that I don’t often—it’s not the kind of part that people generally approach me with. New plays are so sacred to me and I want to make sure that I can serve it well enough.
The language is so poetic. Does that make it easier to learn the dialogue?
It makes it harder in a lot of ways, actually. Just to find the hierarchy in it and make it so that there’s something happening onstage instead of just saying pretty words, you know? Adam had such a deep connection to this story, and I want to be able to do it justice. I think I’m better at characters who are more monosyllabic. She’s quite literal, and she’s an academic. She’s also quite detached from some of her emotions—I love that aspect of her. She keeps a lot of her feelings at bay.
Your character acknowledges the audience right away. How do you handle those moments of direct address?
I sort of enlisted creating some people onstage who aren’t there and putting them there. But I wouldn’t say that comes naturally to me. I did Prelude to a Kiss and I remember watching Alec [Baldwin]. He was just an animal at it. He just knew how to navigate that, and it blew my mind. There are people who are able to address a crowd and make you feel like they’re speaking just to you. Which is kind of amazing. I guess that’s what politicians do, right? It feels intimate, even though they’re addressing a crowd.
The Sound Inside is a two-person play, as was Heisenberg, which you did in 2016. What are the challenges and opportunities with that form?
I love a two-hander. I certainly loved working with Denny [Denis Arndt in Heisenberg]; I really felt like we were one, we were a unit. Will [Hochman] is so much younger and it is amazing to watch him start to learn all of these things. He’s just so undaunted and really trying to approach it all humbly. They’re such different experiences. I don’t know if I’ll do another play; this year might be it.
Really? You think so?
It’s been 35 years of the theatre, and it’s very arduous. Eight shows a week—I used to love the exhaustion, to thrive on feeling like I was just wrung out, like I’d used every last bit of myself. But I have children now and I can’t really afford to feel like that. And I can’t sleep in. [Laughs] If I did theatre again…I love working with kids and putting on shows in the summer with teens. I’d like to do philanthropic things that have to do with theatre. That I think I might enjoy more. Even teaching theatre—I’d be happy to be a drama teacher. I don’t think I would miss much in the way of a public life or being the center of any kind of attention.
I feel like it might be the kind of thing where, if I have any memory left in 10 years, maybe I’d roll back and play Mrs. Malaprop or something. Theatre was always like a religion to me. Johanna Day and I used to talk about that—it was so sacred to us. I felt so passionate about it for reasons that probably would sound lofty if I described them. But I really believe in theatre as something for people, for society, and I get really excited working with kids and the idea of using it in a different way. I got so much out of it and I was so lucky and I loved it so much and have been able to do so many new plays: Proof, Prelude to a Kiss, How I Learned to Drive, Four Dogs and a Bone. You open some first-edition plays and I did them. If I’m proud of anything in my career of acting, I guess it would be that.
So let’s talk about How I Learned to Drive, your possible final stage performance.
Obviously, it is not ideal to do two plays in a season, but I really felt like it was maybe never going to happen if I didn’t do it now. There were parts of it that I felt like I never cracked—that I have a point of view about now—and I’m hoping that I can take a little further. Also, David Morse is like candy, like crack. Acting with him is the greatest thing you could ever hope for.
How do you think this play will be received in the era of #MeToo and conversations about sexual assault?
I don’t know. What do you think?
I’m rereading it and seeing things a bit differently…
I went back and read it again and I felt differently about some of it. I’m sure Paula probably feels differently, too. I’m sure she’ll be willing to reopen the book and talk about it. But I don’t know. I always thought what was so interesting about it was that it wasn’t black and white—there was so much nuance within it. Obviously it is a black-and-white thing: a predator and a victim. I think it’s possible to present that nuance as part of this character’s narrative, and still at the same time under the umbrella of understanding what is acceptable and what is not. I think it could be really interesting. It also could be a disaster—a horribly ill-conceived disaster. But I think if it’s going to be done again it should be done now, because it’s ripe for discussion.
If it is indeed your final stage performance, how will you fill your time?
I used to have some hobbies, and over the past couple years I’ve kind of lost them. I used to tap maple syrup with my kids in the country. And we had goats, but a couple of them died.
What dream project would pull you from the maple trees back to the stage?
That’s always the play I haven’t read. The play that is crying for me to do it. With Proof that happened 10 pages in. So if that play shows up, I might change my mind.