Conchata Ferrell: Some Lovely Estuary

Tenn in Conversation
Royal Orleans Hotel
New Orleans

I hope for the community of kindness within the theatre, and I see examples--or what I hope are examples--of it every once in a while. I have been the recipient of great kindness from the Circle Repertory, which I hope continues to thrive. It is the rare theatre company that chooses to acknowledge that I existed and mattered, and it is a warm and active hive that has given us Lanford [Wilson] and his marvelous director Marshall [Mason]. 

An artist needs a home, both in the large sense--as in all theatre in all places--and in the small: The artist needs a place to fall and get back up and to be mended and molded and criticized and repeatedly challenged. I feel that this is happening in that environment. It needs to be happening many more places.

A marvelous actress came to me from the Circle: Her name is wonderful, like a spell or a mantra--Conchata Ferrell. It makes me think of Fata Morgana or some lovely estuary you have to travel down many roads to find.

She is an onionskin actress, by which I mean that she appears and you are aware of her character, which she presents vividly, but just when you think you know what she's up to, what she's going to do, what her gifts are and where they are being used, she'll surprise you by revealing yet another layer to the woman she is playing. Not just onionskin, but fans and feathers--she teases and reveals and then covers up. Sharing and withholding. Remarkable work.

She was by far the finest Vee Talbot [in Battle of Angels]--so deeply concentrated, frightening, vulnerable. Her performance made me want to go back and work on the play yet again, because she had revealed other layers, other colors.

I guess I fell in love with her in Lanford's Hot l Baltimore--so sweet and sad and real. I seem to recall her throwing away a line that about killing for a Butterfinger that was about so much more than candy or hungers fulfilled or satisfaction. [The line was actually uttered in the short-lived television series based on the play, which appeared on ABC in 1975.]

She broke my heart in a play called The Sea Horse. She is almost violently unafraid to reveal herself, to share her inventory.

When I saw her in a film, forgotten to me save for her performance, she made me think of new ways to present Alma and Amanda. [The film was Heartland]. I began to think of Alma being so suppressed and yet so desirous of flight and escape from her constriction that she took to food and fantasy in that dark house, and she had consummation with John through casseroles she lovingly baked for him.

And her Amanda could be that classic Southern good-time gal, pretty and plump and so hungry for affection. Her Amanda would have beaux; her Amanda would have given everyone a good time; her Amanda would be devastated to learn that no one is coming to call and no one wants her favors; her Amanda would appear in that dress,  still pretty, but far too tight, its fabric as limiting as her possibilities.

Oh, Lord, she's good.

Conchata Ferrell in Heartland.


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