Forgoing a career as a lawyer, Fairmount resident Wendy Staton has found a calling on the stage. Her newest role in the New City Stage’s ‘Night, Mother.
Wendy Staton recalled her reaction when she first saw ’Night, Mother performed on the stage. “It had my heart beating,” she said. “I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
That was 10 years ago. At the time, Staton never imagined she’d be on the stage playing one of the leads in this two-character drama about a confrontation between a mother and a deeply troubled daughter.
The Fairmount actress has been cast as the daughter, Jessie, in the New City Stage Company’s revival of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Marshal Norman. It’s the closing production of the company’s 2010-11 season, with opening night Saturday, June 11.
This is the first professional production of the play in Philadelphia, and it’s assumed to be the only one ever done with two African-American actresses.
“We began thinking very seriously about non-traditional casting and found great enthusiasm in the theater community,” said Ginger Dayle, artistic director of New City Stage.
When Staton heard that the company would be presenting ’Night, Mother, she expressed her interest right away. “I said, ‘I’d love to do it,’” said the actress, who won over audiences in the company’s holiday show, Miss Witherspoon.
She read the script even before she landed the role. “I loved it and was so moved by it,” she said.
The play was first produced for the theater in l983 with Kathy Bates as the daughter in the original stage production. Later, it was made into a movie with Ann Bancroft and Sissy Spacek.
“I purposely didn’t look at the movie because it’s a totally different genre,” said Staton.
But she did some research on suicide, because the unhappy daughter Jessie threatens to end her life.
Staton’s co-star is Cathy Simpson, a Barrymore award winner and also winner of a Kevin Kline award. She and Staton each perform at the National Constitution Center in a 20-minute solo show, Freedom Rising.
“It was exciting to work with someone I knew and respected and from whom I could learn a lot,” said Staton.
The play focuses with piercing and painful honesty on one hour of interaction between the mother and daughter. Both actresses are onstage for virtually the entire play; Staton has only two quick exits which last a few seconds each.
Even the rehearsals were grueling. “There were really intense moments,” said Staton. “Then, during our breaks, I’d break into song or do a silly dance or tell a joke. We were unintentionally keeping it light because we needed a release from the intense, dark moments.”
Besides the demands of a two-character play with its tense drama, Staton had another challenge. Her character is constantly in motion. “I stack the candy dishes, I clean, I fill a honey jar, a sugar bowl, a pill box. I’m constantly moving,” she described.
Working with director Rosey Hay helped Staton hit her stride. “She lets the moments develop organically and then she fine-tunes what we do,” said Staton. “She’s a very good communicator, and I felt comfortable right from the first reading.”
She also felt comfortable in a role that hadn’t been done by an African-American actress until now. “I’m very happy to be cast in roles that aren’t necessarily written for African- Americans,” said Staton. “I’ve even taken the initiative and asked to be considered for roles I’m interested in.”
Her evolution as an actress is an unusual one. The Philadelphia native attended Girls High and then Columbia University where she majored in history and sociology. She then went on to Columbia Law School.
With her degree in hand, she practiced law for 12 years. But she also got involved in community theater. She found it a refreshing change from the stresses of her law career, which included two years serving as legal counsel to then Police Commissioner John Timoney.
“One time, I had an especially busy day, but then I went on the stage at Allen’s Lane that evening and all the stress just melted away,” related Staton. “It was almost like therapy.”
She began to think of theater as a career, not an avocation. And she made a surprising proposal to her family: she asked to work in the family business, property management, part time so she could pursue acting full time. They agreed.
But first, she took a three-week trip to Africa with good friends. “They really encouraged me,” she said. “They said, ‘Life is short, this isn’t crazy, follow your passion.’”
So she did. She was working in the family business and taking an acting class at the Wilma Theatre when she got her first professional role. It was in the Pig Iron Theater production of Love Unpunished.
“I was working with amazing actors and I enjoyed it so much I kept thinking, ‘I could do this all day.” And her theater colleagues said, “Why don’t you?”
That was in 2006. Since then, this lawyer-turned-actress has been on area stages in varied roles. Recently, her career change became even more final when she didn’t renew her law license. “I put it on the shelf,” she said. “I’m very sure I made the right decision.”
Now, as opening night for ’Night, Mother approaches, she’s primed and ready to take on its challenges. “It’s such a great role,” she enthused. “It’s challenging, scary, exhilarating. It’s like a roller coaster ride, and it pushes me to my limits.” ••