Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All Alone on the Stage

Alice McMahon
Everyone knows that boarding a play is a cooperative effort, but once the lights go down and the curtain goes up, the audience doesn’t see the director or the playwright, the set designer, choreographer or the stage crew (except occasionally, dressed in black, scurrying around during scene changes). What the audience sees are the actors. Hundreds of pairs of eyes shift from actor to actor as lines are delivered, they note movement and stage business…but, what if there’s only one actor up on the stage? Those hundreds of eyes focus and remain focused; the intensity is palpable. The entire weight of the show is on one person’s shoulders.

Currently at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford, those shoulders belong to Alice McMahon, who stars in Becoming Dr. Ruth, a dramatized biography of the famed sex therapist written by Mark St. Germaine. For 90 or so minutes, McMahon relates the story of the diminutive German girl who, at 10 years old, escaped from Hitler’s Germany to Switzerland, then on to Israel, and then France, and finally the United States, where she eventually became a celebrity, all told in a polyglot accent.

In preparing for the role, McMahon just didn’t rely on St. Germain’s script. “I always do research, even if I only have four or five lines,” McMahon said in a recent interview after doing a 20-minute preview of the show at Watermark in Bridgeport. “Dr. Ruth is all over the Internet. Listening to her, watching her in interviews, gives you a lot of insight into the woman,” McMahon said. “It might tell you how to deliver a line in a certain way that you might not have done before. For example, a little tidbit. You remember she gives a little girl her doll on the Kindertransport to Switzerland. She met that girl later and asked her about the doll and the girl didn’t remember it. ‘Well,” Dr. Ruth said, ‘You think she could have told a little white lie.’”

McMahon was not unfamiliar with the play before she got the role. She had done a reading of it at the Stratford Library for Tom Holehan, the play’s director, two years ago. However, that didn’t mean she had the script down pat. Once she knew she was going to perform Dr. Ruth, she began memorizing her lines in December, 2016. “I counted the weeks until the rehearsals began and I did five pages a week.” However, she was not exactly off-book at the start of rehearsals. As she explained, “When you start adding movement you need the script. However, I’d say by the second week I was pretty much off-book. However, it was daunting – 38 pages or so.”

When you’re working with other actors on the stage they, in their dialogue, provide you with cues. If an actor says, “Darlene, where were you last night?” the actress playing Darlene uses that as a cue to deliver her appropriate line, unless she goes blank – but even then her fellow actors will cover for her, help her to get back on track. Such is not the case, or the relative comfort, in a one-woman show. However, there are ways to generate cues.

“The play is not really chronological,” McMahon said. “She jumps here and there in her story. I was pretty secure with the sections that hung all together, but then you think, ‘My God, am I supposed to be in Palestine now?’ But there are sound cues – a telephone ringing – and the music – ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’ reminds me that I’m supposed to be doing the Shirley Temple section, there’s the music box music, there’s violin music for the school and the Jewish music – all that’s very helpful.” Then there are the props – primarily photographs stored in a crate. “Tom said, ‘If you get confused, everything is in that box.’ It’s all in order – that’s also really helpful.” And finally there’s the blocking – the director suggesting (or dictating) the actor’s movements. “That’s also extremely helpful,” McMahon said. “You know, I’ve moved over here so I should he saying this, then I’m over there and that’s when I deliver these other lines.”

Then there’s the accent. Dr. Ruth’s voice is very distinctive, but McMahon said that she had little trouble coming up with and maintaining what is, obviously, not her normal speaking voice. “For some reason,” she explained, “it just seemed to come naturally. One of the things that helped me was – well, who can do this accent? It’s a combination of Israeli, German, French and American, so I didn’t have a feeling – I just didn’t think it was that important to exactly capture her accent. However, things that were hard were the German words. For example, I looked up ‘Lodz’ – my God, there were like five different pronunciations of the word. Then there was her doll’s name. At one performance there was a woman in the first row and when I said the doll’s name she started shaking her head. I wanted to catch her afterwards to ask her how it should be pronounced but she had gone.”

Finally, there’s the intimacy of the Square One venue, which is currently nested in the Stratford Academy, essentially a black box theater with perhaps 50 seats. From the stage you don’t just see the first or second row, you see the entire audience. “It is a little more difficult,” McMahon said. “It breaks your concentration a bit, especially if you see someone you know. I ask all my family not to tell me when they’re coming and not to sit where I can see them, because it takes you out of it. It shouldn’t – discipline – but it does.”

In researching the role and acting in the play, McMahon has come to truly respect Ruth Westheimer. “I just adore her,” McMahon said. “You know, going though what she went through and turning out to be what she’s become, she’s just so positive, and I really think it’s the love that she got as a little kid, she had that security and confidence that people really loved her. There’s that line from her grandmother: ‘Always smile. Be cheerful. You are loved.’ I think that helped her throughout her whole life.”

Becoming Dr. Ruth runs through May 21. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to www.squareonetheatre.com    

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