Jessica Lange and Paula Vogel on Breaking, and Keeping, the Family Contract

Jessica Lange and Paula Vogel on Breaking, and Keeping, the Family Contract

It is one of life’s great strokes of luck to have an excellent mother. The playwright Paula Vogel didn’t get one. The actress Jessica Lange did: sweet and nurturing, accepting of her children, the kind of mom the other kids wished was theirs.

“I had a perfect mother,” Lange, 75, said on a June afternoon in a lounge at the Helen Hayes Theater in Midtown Manhattan, her tone making clear that she wasn’t boasting or being hyperbolic. She was simply stating a fact, one that she realizes is “beyond fortunate,” and sets her own warm familial dynamic apart from that of the characters in Vogel’s “Mother Play: A Play in Five Evictions.” At the drama’s center is a painfully less than ideal parent. Lange is up for a Tony Award for portraying her.

To Vogel, 72, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “How I Learned to Drive,” a backward-spooling 1997 memory play inspired by her uncle, the scenario of a mother who doesn’t exactly throw herself into the job is as familiar as her personal past: autobiography spun into drama.

“I’m the kid that found other friends’ mothers, and went home with them after school,” she recalled, perched across a high, round-topped table from Lange. “I remember once coming into a friend’s house drenched from the rain, and her mother brought me a bathrobe and said, ‘Take your clothes off in the bathroom. I’m drying your clothes.’ I’m like” — and here Vogel channeled a child’s voice, wonder-struck — “‘You are? You’d do that for me?’”

Still, “Mother Play,” a best-play Tony nominee, is not an exercise in demonization or revenge. Condemning Phyllis, the mother — who shares Vogel’s mother’s name — is not the point. Understanding her is.

For Lange, who has three grown children whom she considers her chief priority, that means making sense of some irrevocable betrayals by Phyllis of her daughter and, most profoundly, her son.

“You cannot judge this character as you’re playing her,” Lange said. “But there are elements of Phyllis, there are decisions that she makes in life, that are as foreign to me as anything I could ever imagine.”

Vogel calls “Mother Play,” a Second Stage Theater production that is slated to end its limited Broadway run on Sunday, “the prequel” to her 1992 play, “The Baltimore Waltz.” A heartbroken comic fantasia about a brother, Carl, and a sister, Anna, “The Baltimore Waltz” is dedicated to the memory of Vogel’s brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988.

In the decades-spanning “Mother Play,” set in the Washington area where Vogel grew up, Carl (Jim Parsons, Tony-nominated for his performance) is Phyllis’s doted-on darling boy. He is also the tenacious champion of his worshipful younger sister, Martha (Celia Keenan-Bolger, likewise), a fictionalized version of Vogel. And he is the child cast out when Phyllis breaks what Vogel described as “a contract of parenting and family,” which is “that you take care of your family when they’re dying, regardless.”

In a telephone interview, Keenan-Bolger noted that “most of our great American plays about families were written by sons in their 30s and 40s.”

“To have a family play about a mother written by a daughter in her 70s feels significant to me,” she said, “particularly since this play centers a lot around forgiveness. Age has such an impact on the way that we’re able to view our parents and their shortcomings.”

Yet as Tina Landau, the production’s director, pointed out in a separate interview, the play inhabits a theatrical universe whose unconventionality is a Vogel hallmark.

“As a memory play,” Landau said, “it’s not steeped in sepia and nostalgia. It’s vibrant colors and it’s quick switches and it’s crazy music and it’s dancing cockroaches.”

Phyllis, inside that universe, is a witty if reluctant mother — a divorced secretary, fond of martinis and cigarettes, who’d had her children in a time when getting married and starting a family seemed almost inevitable in women’s lives: more fate than choice. She makes her entrance in a roach-infested apartment when a chair swivels around, revealing her. That’s how Phyllis appeared as Vogel began writing the play, which had been percolating in her mind for more than 15 years.

“When that happened,” she said, “it’s maybe the second page of the script, and I got to see her again, I went, ‘Oh, there she is!’”

A surprising amount of delight animated her voice as she recounted that, given the searing memories that the play revisits — alongside charming ones, like the mutual adoration in Phyllis and Carl’s relationship, and healing ones, where we see the family contract faithfully upheld. In any case, it makes emotional sense to Vogel.

“This has been exquisite for me,” she said. “I do love my mother. She was never dull. It was always interesting. You know, I walked through the door and I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I knew it was going to be original.”

Lange’s previous Broadway outings have all been in American classics, two by her favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams. She played Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1992 and Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” in 2005. She won a Tony in 2016 in her most cherished role, Mary Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

Embodying mothers onstage, then, is hardly novel for her. But “Mother Play” marks three kinds of firsts for Lange — as a new play, as a play written by a woman and as a play by a living playwright. That last detail is striking, given that she had an in-house playwright during her nearly three decades with Sam Shepard.

“I did, I had one right in the bedroom, thank God,” she said, and laughed. “You know, we had planned a couple different things to do together. Twice, I think, those plans were abruptly altered by my pregnancies. But I got a daughter and a son out of it, so it might be better than a run of a play.”

Lange, who has won two Academy Awards and three Emmys and has been famous since the Bicentennial, gives the impression of being extraordinarily comfortable in her skin. It was 50 minutes into the interview, after Williams’s name and work had come up repeatedly, before she mentioned that she’d known him a “very little bit.”

“Oh, God,” Vogel breathed, reverently, and you could hear that she would like a Williams anecdote from Lange right now, please.

So Lange complied, offering a memory involving Mikhail Baryshnikov and their daughter: “Once Misha and I were down in St. Barts. Shura was just a tiny baby. He was there,” she said, meaning Williams. “Maybe he was there with Liz Ashley, I don’t remember, but I do remember him holding little baby Shura on his lap and bouncing her.”

Vogel has said that it was important to her to make “Mother Play” with “an artist who has had a life filled with children.” If she had had her way, though, she would have had her own little ones.

“I really wanted children,” she said. “It was like a physical urge.”

But she worried.

“I wasn’t sure that I could escape the negative patterns,” she said. “I didn’t think as a gay woman, I’d have enough money and resources to have health benefits. To have food on the table. Artists, we usually live below the poverty line starting out.”

“I actually had tried to conceive with my best gay friend and it didn’t take,” Vogel continued. “And I remember thinking, well, do I go down to the bar and wear a scoop neck and put on makeup and just see if, you know —”

“That used to work,” Lange interjected, providing corroboration the way only someone from the same generation can.

“That used to work!” Vogel concurred. “And then you think, OK, what am I getting genetically?”

“Well,” Lange said, all practicality. “That rabbit hole is like, you know, what are you going to do.”

Vogel, who has been married since 2004 to Anne Fausto-Sterling, has become known as one of the American theater’s pre-eminent teacher-mentors, first at Brown University and later at Yale.

Her former students were quick to spot, in “Mother Play,” what it borrows from the German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz’s wordless 1973 play “Request Concert,” which she has long used to teach what a playwright can do without dialogue.

Her riff, based partly on observing her mother years ago, is a portrait of Phyllis’s loneliness and a tour-de-force section of the show, titled in the script “The Phyllis Ballet.”

It is one of the parts of the performance that Lange enjoys most, alone onstage for about 15 minutes. Phyllis, having alienated both of her children, passes a desolate evening, trying not to drink too soon or too much.

“Every night that I do it,” Lange said, “images and memories and emotions just kind of move me from one moment to another. So it’s never exactly the same, and it’s never just mechanical: ‘OK, now I’m going to get the drink. Now I’m going to get dinner. Now I’m going to try to play solitaire.’

“And it’s almost like being on water,” she added, swirling her hands gently back and forth through the air to illustrate. “It just keeps moving, you know. Like, boom, you knock into this and then, boom, you knock into that. Following the current.”

Vogel asked: “Do you think of your kids while you’re doing it?”

Lange took in the question, briefly started to talk about sense-memory and substitution techniques that an actor might use to tap into emotion.

But her answer, ultimately, was simpler than that, and in a sense more reassuring: “There’s nothing that I can draw on from my relationship with my children in this.”

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