Role Playing: Kathleen Ruhl went for laughs, but resisted harsh character that gets them
Interview: An actress who thrives on comedy admits it wasn’t easy to embrace mom’s brutal candor in “Neighbor” at Redtwist Theatre.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Actress Kathleen Ruhl loves to hear an audience laugh. It’s always been one of the joys of her long stage career. Naturally, in her role as the flinty, straight-talking mom to two adult children in Suzanne Heathcote’s “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile” at Redtwist Theatre, she savors the laughter that rings off those close walls. But for Ruhl, the mirth came in a bitter pill.
“A lot of actors want to play the bad guy, but I’ve never liked that,” says Ruhl, the real-life mom of playwright Sarah Ruhl. “This play disturbed me before we really got it going. I knew all those terrible things Daphne (the mom she plays) says were great laugh lines. But in real life, those would be such mean things to say. I was worried the audience would eventually stop laughing – that they would begin to think, ‘What a bitch.’”
In Heathcote’s play about a severely dysfunctional family, Daphne is the acerbic, slashing, all-too-ready commentator on the messed-up lives of her kids Jamie (played by Adam Bitterman) and Rebecca (Jacqueline Grandt). The narrative begins with Jamie playing a familiar angle, cajoling his sister into taking responsibility for his teenage daughter Sadie (Emma Maltby) while he sallies off to Hawaii to get married – yet again.
This impromptu relocation of Sadie from California to Chicago is doubly urgent: The girl made a sex video with two guys at her high school, and their little production went viral. So Sadie, neglected by her father and angry at the world, shows up in Chicago winter dressed for LA spring, and defying everyone to make her care about anything. Looming up in the midst of this charged situation, like an unavoidable boulder of reality, is Ruhl’s imposing and unyielding Daphne.
“Actually, Daphne and this troubled girl are not all that different,” says Ruhl. “Very early in rehearsals, the director (Erin Murray) told me to be careful not to show feelings on my face. Sadie wears that sort of mask, too. And she speaks her mind. She’s very direct. That’s where she and Daphne connect. I think Daphne respects the girl’s toughness – and wishes her own daughter Rebecca could be more like that.”
Even though the actors are virtually rubbing knees with the audience seated along the walls in Redtwist’s tiny space, Ruhl says she’s never quite sure whether viewers pick up on the motives behind Daphne’s rough demeanor. This woman, she says, has come to understand the world as a hard place where strength of character is essential for survival – and vulnerable souls like Rebecca can get swallowed up.
“I don’t know if it’s clear to the audience that when Rebecca is finally able to stand her ground with Jamie – and me – that Daphne thinks this is a good thing,” Ruhl says. “What Daphne is trying to do is toughen her up, to help her withstand the slings and arrows of fortune. Rebecca won’t stand up for herself. She’s always caving in.
“I think Daphne’s read of Rebecca is probably accurate. When Daphne says the hurtful things, she’d like Rebecca not to fall apart, but to talk back to her. Somehow I guess she feels Rebecca will make her way in the world better if she is not so timid. Rebecca says she doesn’t want to talk to the man on the train, because then what would they talk about the next day? How can you build any kind of relationship thinking like that?
“Daphne is probably so hard on the kid, Sadie, because her desperate attempt to get attention with the porn video wasn’t very smart. And then she shows up in a Chicago winter and won’t even wear a jacket. Again, not very smart.”
But it turns out that Sadie is very smart indeed, along lines that reinforce a spiritual kinship with fire-breathing Daphne. In the play’s most touching vignette, Sadie learns a crucial fact about Daphne that should bring the two women closer, but a distraction shatters the moment, and Daphne’s hard veneer cracks.
“Daphne is more nuanced than meets the eye,” says Ruhl of the grandmother. “We don’t know about her childhood except that she had to quit college because her mother was sick, and that it changed the direction of her life. Now her daughter, who is in therapy, says Daphne uses humor to deflect. That’s probably true. Still, Daphne insists that she’s not ashamed of anything she’s done, even though she also knows she has made mistakes – her connections with her children are not satisfying.
“Maybe the best line in the play is when she says to her son Jamie, who has been so neglectful of Sadie: ‘If you’re not careful, Sadie is going to feel about you the way you feel about me, and you don’t want that. Believe me.’”
In the beginning of the play, says Ruhl, each of these women from three generations is, in one way or another, stuck. “By the end,” she says, “they get a little unstuck. There’s a scene where Rebecca tells her mother, ‘You don’t seem like you want me to be happy. My therapist says I need more positive affirmation.’ And Daphne is willing to go with that. There’s a softening that happens in her.”
As for getting laughs from terse, breathtaking honesty, Ruhl says she eventually found a way to look at Daphne that made her less daunting:
“This play reminds me of (David Lindsay-Abaire’s) ‘Good People.’ A lot of the dialogue has the same quality. It’s not really mean, it’s just the way they talk, an Irish style of conversing – by jabbing at each other. I’m sure Daphne would fit right in.”
Review of “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train”: Read it at Chicago On the Aisle
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Tags: Adam Bitterman, Emma Maltby, Erin Murray, Jacqueline Grandt, Kathleen Ruhl, Sarah Ruhl, Suzanne Heathcote