Role Playing: Natalie West scaled back comedy to nail laughs, touch hearts in ‘Mud Blue Sky’
Interview: As a veteran airline attendant with an aching back, the actor framed her performance to the intimate space of A Red Orchid Theatre. Through June 29.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Natalie West’s portrayal of a bone-weary airline attendant in Marisa Wegrzyn’s “Mud Blue Sky” at A Red Orchid Theatre is so recognizable – who hasn’t felt exactly like that? – in its muted and dryly funny fashion that it comes as a shock to hear that she miniaturized the performance, so to speak, from a larger canvas.
West, perhaps best known as Crystal Anderson Conner in the 1988-97 television series “Roseanne,” plays Beth, the senior of three flight attendants who are old friends. Her back has been giving her grief, an inexorable fact that she’s managed to conceal from her superiors. Beth and fellow attendant Sam (Mierka Girten) have just checked into a hotel near O’Hare International Airport. Though it’s late, they will be joined by Angie (Kirsten Fitzgerald), a former attendant who quit the game at an early age.
But what gives the play both its locus and its energy, and West the true object of her disarming performance, is a fourth arrival: Jonathan (Matt Farabee), a good-looking high school senior whose prom date has tossed him – and who happens to be Beth’s source of medicinal marijuana. As all three women gravitate to this fine young lad reminiscent of James Bond in his tux, Beth finds herself drawn to his side as mother-protector.
“At the beginning he’s her pot dealer,” explains West, “but at the end he’s someone she feels a modicum of responsibility for. It’s a big change for Beth, who at the start of the play is avoiding anything like that. She’s a ‘slam-locker’ – someone who hits the hotel room, slams and locks the door, as if to say, ‘Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.’
“At first Beth sees her relationship with Jonathan as shallow, incidental, unimportant in any larger sense. Then she hears what he’s gone through. She’s an ethically sound person and realizes, when she stops to think about it, that you have to be accountable.”
From the moment we first see Beth, practically crawling into her hotel room and emitting soundless relief at the mere removal of her shoes, our hearts are with her. West then holds us firmly in hand through finely gauged understatement. Her speech is quiet, tired, her gestures minimal but deliciously expressive. She’s a master of delayed, even silent, response.
“It’s pretty tight, really wild. I find it liberating to work in that space. You can do small things and everybody can experience it. All I do is take my shoes off, and I can feel the response. I hear these sighs. They’re so close to us that the reaction is physical.”
But West says that before it reached an audience, this finely inflected tour de force was first writ large.
“In rehearsal, you have to take it to the extreme, then bring it back down, hone it and come back to trusting (playwright) Marisa’s words. It’s a terrific script. I know Marisa, and Beth is the character most like her. That’s her voice in the play.”
It’s also a character West says she can relate to at her stage of life.
“Beth likes her job, but now it has become too much because her body is breaking down on her,” she says. “Being an older person myself, I get to that place where you have to take into account your own limitations. Some days you’re able to ignore it more than others. That can be hard to face, but you have to play it out until you just can’t do it any more. That’s where Beth is.”
To get everyone on the same ambient frequency, director Shade Murray and the cast “went out and stayed at one of those sad hotels on Mannheim Road, with the vending machines selling tooth brushes, condoms and Cheetos,” says West. “That launched the project.
“Shade’s a brilliant director. This is my third play with him. He knows all three of the actresses very well, and he’s very adept at exploring the psychology of all the characters. This is ensemble at its best.”
Enter the fourth musketeer: Matt Farabee, the tuxedoed grass dealer.
“He’s a lovely young man,” says West, “and we had the good fortune of having him walk in the door. Right from the get-go, we were able to tap into a connection with him. At first, Beth’s relationship with Jonathan is strictly business. She doesn’t want to go to a doctor, and have the airline find out about her back, so she has to find other ways to medicate. He’s her source.
“But when she finds out his mother has died, that’s a call to be more than Beth has been. When Sam sees him, she tries to relive her prom. That’s when Beth takes on a mother role with him. She sees Jonathan suffer another rejection, and that’s a turning point.”
Yet it isn’t exactly a mother-son thing. Not unlike James Bond, this young man who pops in from the darkness offers Beth the possibility of rescue.
“She’s like any boomer, trying to figure out what the second half is going to be,” says West. “What are you going to do when you can’t do what you’ve been doing. You’re still going to be around. You have to allow yourself to dream. And if you try something new and fail, that’s OK.
“For Beth, that’s the challenge at the end of the play. Because of her relationship with Jonathan, she’s much more able to entertain the idea that she can still do something. He’s given her the gift of his youth and enthusiasm.”
- Review of ‘Mud Blue Sky’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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