Theatre

SMART COOKIE

Actress Seana McKenna combines brains with depth—and a penchant for playfulness

John Bemrose June 4 2001
Theatre

SMART COOKIE

Actress Seana McKenna combines brains with depth—and a penchant for playfulness

John Bemrose June 4 2001

SMART COOKIE

Actress Seana McKenna combines brains with depth—and a penchant for playfulness

JOHN BEMROSE

Theatre

Last summer, when Seana McKenna was playing the title role in Euripides’ 2,500year-old tragedy Medea at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, there was an interruption from the audience. It came just as McKenna’s Medea was about to lead her two young sons out of sight in order to slaughter them— revenge on her husband, Jason, who had abandoned her for a younger woman. As McKenna started to take the boys away, someone near the stage implored audibly, “Don’t go!” The light in Seana McKenna’s eyes intensifies as she tells this anecdote. For the 44-year-old actress, it demonstrates live drama’s ability to take the audience to the depths of the human heart and make them forget they’re watching fiction. “When that person spoke out,” she recalls, “it sent shivers through me. That person was 100-per-cent present to what was happening. I thought, ‘This is why we do what we do. This is why theatre matters.’ ”

McKenna doesn’t say so, but another reason theatre matters in this country is her own potent stage presence. She can take difficult roles such as Medea, or Dr. Vivian Bearing, the cancer-stricken heroine of Margaret Edson’s Wit— which she played last winter in Van-

couver and Toronto—and make them as fresh and believable as the girl next door. She can create grandeur without phoniness and intimacy without sentimentality. “Seana’s natural talent and her early classical training, especially in Shakespeare, have given her a tremendous range,” says Stratford artistic director Richard Monette. “She is equally at home playing Noël Coward and Tennessee Williams. As well, her darting intelligence is in perfect balance with her emotions.”

McKenna’s range is on display in the new Stratford season (May 28 to Nov. 4). She’s striking out in a new direction with her first Coward role, the witty Amanda, in the classic 1930 comedy Private Lives (May 30 to Nov. 2). Later in the season, she’ll take the part of Anne Driver, a woman crippled by a stroke in Good Mother, a world premiere from up-and-coming Canadian playwright Damien Atkins (like Medea, that show will be directed by McKenna’s husband, Miles Potter). She’s also playing Chorus in the festival’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry V (June 2 to Nov. 4).

Interviewed on the morning after her second preview performance of Private Lives, McKenna answers questions with a playfulness not unlike Amanda’s.

Sometimes her first response is to laugh boisterously, and her speech is continually broken by those sudden girlish rises of her voice her fans know well. When I announce I’m about to dramatically change direction in my line of questioning, McKenna looks at me coyly and delivers an old but good comeback: “Will I get whiplash?” Her hair, shaved off for Wit, hasn’t entirely grown back yet, leaving her with a grey, cap-like growth that contrasts with her maroon lipstick and fingernails. But the most riveting thing about the actress is the shifting intensity of grey-blue eyes.

In Private Lives, she plays opposite the hugely talented veteran Brian Bedford, who takes the role of Amanda’s lover, Elyot (Bedford also directs the show). Their onstage relationship features relentless badinage, with the barbs flying as thickly as blossoms in a May windstorm. “Brian plays with you, he plays with the audience, and he plays hardball,” McKenna says. She goes on to compare their adversarial stance to the duelling of two kodo drummers, each trying to draw a bigger reaction from the audience. Continues McKenna: “You’re always sort of thinking to yourself, ‘That was a lovely laugh you got, dear, but if you think that was good, just watch this.’ ”

McKenna’s independence of spirit is clearly more than just a spillover from Amanda. It has powered her career for more than two decades. In the mid-’70s, she dropped out of the University of Toronto and fled her native city to attend the National Theatre School in Montreal. Even before she graduated, the Stratford Festival offered her a job. In a typical display of independent thinking, McKenna turned it down. “I didn’t want to get spoiled,” she says. “This is a big facility, with beautiful costumes, a good paycheque and eight months a year of secure employment. But I would have had to go on being an apprentice at Stratford, taking only the smallest of roles. I wanted to be on the boards, I wanted to get out and see the country.”

After three years of working in big and little theatres across Canada,

McKenna finally succumbed to Stratford’s lure in 1982, and quickly established herself as someone to watch: her incandescent Juliet opposite Colm Feore’s Romeo in 1984 is still talked about. But she grew tired of playing young female roles, especially passive, tragic ones, which she felt did not reflect her own maturing as a woman. “After you’ve played enough classical ingenues, you want to shake yourself up,” she says. “I’d had enough of cryin’ and dyin.” So she left the festival in 1985 to be an itinerant actor once again, honing

her skills on more contemporary work. But the classical stage at Stratford continued to beckon, and since the early ’90s she’s mixed festival work with stints at major Canadian and U.S. theatres.

McKenna’s power onstage is much more than the effect of a vivacious intelligence. Whether playing an icy Lady Macbeth or a subtly desperate Blanche DuBois, she sounds an emotional depth that finds an echo with her audiences. “I think you have to be willing to reveal those parts of your personality—of our personality—that you don’t want people to see,” McKenna muses. “It’s a sharing, and you can only initiate it if you have faith that the people in the audience have experienced a similar thing. Really, you are saying to

them, ‘You’re not alone out there.’ ” McKenna’s great triumph in playing Medea was in winning sympathy for a woman who kills her own children. “Hopefully, few in the audience will have done that,” she jokes. “But like Medea, they do know what it’s like to feel jealous, to feel out of control, to feel deceived, to feel violent. Medea is different from us in degree only—we’re all on the same spectrum.” After such a meaty character, playing the rich bon vivant Amanda might seem a bit of a comedown. Is there a challenge in the role?

THE STRATFORD STAR CREATES GRANDEUR WITHOUT PHONINESS AND INTIMACY WITHOUT SENTIMENTALITY

McKenna, who lives with Potter and their three-year-old son, Callan, in a village near Stratford, pauses to consider. “The challenge is capturing Amanda’s essence, which is a very strong, positive life force. Her philosophy is to be kind to everybody, to be as gay as possible. The challenge in playing her is to keep it light, real but light, so that one doesn’t go towards one’s natural melancholy.”

Natural melancholy? My ears prick at this admission. But the interview is over, and there’s no time to probe further. No doubt her melancholy will crop up in some future performance of Chekhov or Williams—perhaps when Seana McKenna once again reveals her secret selves and touches the lives of those watching her, out there in the intimate dark. ESI