Helen Hunt Delves Into Our Town
by michael ventre
|Hunt in Our Town at NY’s Barrow Street Theatre|
For Helen Hunt, doing Our Town in her hometown is about as good as it gets. The Los Angeles native has a relationship with Thornton Wilder’s classic American play that dates back to Broadway’s 1988-89 season, when she played the role of Emily at the age of 25. Beginning January 18 (previews begin January 13), she appears on her home turf in the part of the Stage Manager in director David Cromer’s production at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, a role she performed in the summer of 2010 at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York.
“My good friend Bill Gerber [one of the Our Town producers] brought me to see it, and I thought it was an astonishing piece of work,” Hunt says of the contemporary and unusually intimate staging that will have members of the audience actually seated on the stage. “I came back to LA and told all my friends they had to go see it. Then I got a call from David Cromer asking if I’d be interested in performing in it. I told him this might be a mistake, that I am—to a lesser or greater degree, for what it’s worth—well known, and that might be just what he was avoiding. His feeling was, if it was another well-known person it wouldn’t be right, but as long as the actor playing the Stage Manager had qualities of humor and some amount of brains, then he thought it would be great. He knew I had strong feelings for the play. He convinced me.”
But she had one important request before she fully committed. “I thought the only way I would do it is if we had a real rehearsal process,” says Hunt. “So I went to Chicago and worked quite a while with him and another actress, Lori Myers, who plays Mrs. Gibbs. The three of us got together and worked and talked about the play.”
This isn’t the first time a woman has played the role of the Stage Manager; Geraldine Fitzgerald is believed to have been the first female to play the part, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1971. But it’s a relatively rare occurrence. Acting legends including Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, and Paul Newman have all stepped into the role, and therefore Hunt understood only too well the gravity of the task.
“I had heard the part had been played in the past with some sort of omnipotence. Whatever the opposite of that is, that’s what I’m playing it with,” she says with a laugh. “You can play the part as creating a whole thing with God. The other way to do it is in an extremely personal way. The Stage Manager is struggling with the questions of the play just as the other characters and the audiences are. So I can’t fail at being iconic, because I’m not playing that,” says Hunt.
“There are people I know who have worked in theater their whole lives, and for many of them Our Town had slipped through the cracks,” she says. “I have some really smart New York theater actor friends who [when they saw me in the play] couldn’t believe the part wasn’t written for a woman.”
Hunt is one of only three actors (Liza Minnelli and Helen Mirren are the other two) to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe (in both cases for As Good as It Gets), and an Emmy (for Mad About You) in the same year, in 1998. Now she is back in familiar territory, where she can surf, hike, and go to the movies. “I’m going to do this play in my neighborhood,” says Hunt, who began performing as a kid with guidance from her dad, Gordon, a prominent acting coach. “I’m happy to be home. Half my life is in New York and half is in Los Angeles, and I feel happy I can bring this to the other half of my community. My family lives here (boyfriend Matthew Carnahan, their daughter, Makena lei, and Carnahan’s son, Emmett). It’s very meaningful to me to share this production with them. Plus, I seem to be appearing on the backs of a lot of buses,” she says. “I get calls from friends who say they almost rear-ended a bus with my face on it.” Our Town runs January 18–February 12 at The Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. 1310 11th St., Santa Monica, 310-434-3200
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC OGDEN/CORBIS OUTLINE (HUNT); PETER JAMES ZIELINSKI (CAST)
LAC celebrates the women of its May/June 2013 issue at Palihouse in West Hollywood.