Northeast Times

Fairmount actress takes on challenging role

(From left) Wendy Staton and Cathy Simpson take on the only two roles in the New City Stage’s ‘Night, Moth­er pro­duc­tion at the Ad­rienne Theat­er. Staton is a Fair­mount res­id­ent. COUR­TESY AN­NIE SUCH

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.” •• 

You can reach at rrovner@aol.com.

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