Walking out of Kelli O'Hara's dressing room the other day, I felt a little guilty. Not because it had taken me so long to interview her since she returned in October to her Tony-nominated role as Nellie Forbush; I wanted her to have a chance to settle back in before we settled back down for a chat. I felt slightly sheepish because I had asked her so many questions about how motherhood was affecting her work life, and I have to be honest and say with a new father there wouldn't have been quite as many parenthood queries.
On the other hand, a new father doesn't have to go through pregnancy and labor, and the demands of performing almost every day are so physical that all these things do most definitely have an impact on the realities of an actress's life.
Not that pregnancy slowed down O'Hara's performing schedule much. "I leftSouth Pacific in March," she said. "I did some concerts in April, performed at the Carlyle [a nightspot in New York], and thought I would have late June and July to rest before the baby was born. But he" - he being the adorable Owen James Naughton - "came three weeks early, on June 27. I did a little gig on a Tuesday, and then on Saturday there he was."
Parenthood is now - of course! -- a determining factor in O'Hara's day-to-day life. "My husband, Greg [Naughton], is a wonderful father, and we have a family cousin who's been helping out, but no nanny," O'Hara says. But how has the life change affected her approach to playing Nellie?
"It's now a little more difficult for me to grab on to Nellie's ignorance, and not just about race," O'Hara says. "Being a mother is I hope making me more compassionate, so finding the hate inside Nellie is a challenge."
There are compensations, however. "I find that I'm not taking myself so seriously now," O'Hara says. "I'm less afraid to fail, because I have a family life that helps lift me up and reminds me that career is only one part of my life."
How does this new attitude's affect her on stage? "It's easier for me to let go a little bit when I'm out there," O'Hara confesses. "I feel more playful." She is quick to admit how lucky she is in her playmates. "One of the things that made it easier to come back to the role - something I've never done before - is that I was coming back to work with people I trusted: Paulo [Szot] and Danny [Burstein] and so many other great people in this theater, which is so supportive."
O'Hara admits that her new life doesn't allow her to hang out with these cast members as much as she used to. She's generally at home when not at LCT (though she made an exception in early November to sing a thrilling rendition of "God Bless America" at the World Series game where the Yankees clinched). "I can't say I miss my old life because my new one is so worth it," she adds. "But I don't want people I work with every day to feel that I don't love them as much as ever." To convey that affection, O'Hara recently had a cookout for cast and crew members in LCT's large rehearsal room. "My parents were in town from Oklahoma," O'Hara says, referring to the state where she grew up, "and that seemed like a good time to have such an occasion."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.