Jan Maxwell grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, which would seem worlds removed from the Georgetown living room in which The City of Conversationtakes place. Yet in our interview the other day, conducted in the seats of the Mitzi E. Newhouse theater, the similarities between Maxwell's upbringing and the world of Hester Ferris, whom she portrays, quickly became apparent.
"Hester's politics are very much those in which I grew up," Maxwell said. "I'm from a liberal household. My father was a judge, and my mother, after raising 6 kids, went to law school at the age of 52." What's more, Maxwell, like Hester, is the mother of an only child. "My son is 18," the actress said, "and I can relate to Hester's sense that her child is becoming an independent adult. As a parent, your child's pulling away can be hard, but it's also natural and healthy."
Maxwell said that some of the parallels between her own life and that of Hester can make doing The City of Conversation a challenge. "Playing the sense of emotional loss that Hester experiences can be hard on me. I wish I were more of a trained actress so that I could separate myself from Hester more."
Maxwell is being a little modest: her training may not have been at Juilliard or NYU - "when I was growing up we hadn't really heard of those places" - but it was thorough. She studied theater at Moorhead State, right across the Red River from Fargo. "During the summer season, we would do 8 shows in 10 weeks. And you worked not only onstage but doing lights and sets and just about everything else. It was a well-rounded training."
At age 24, Maxwell moved to New York. She made her Broadway debut in the musical City of Angels, which opened in late 1989, and has gone on to build a stellar Broadway career: she is one of only three women - Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald are the others - who have been nominated for Tony awards in all four acting categories. For one of those performances - a revival of Kaufman and Ferber's The Royal Family, directed by Doug Hughes, who has staged The City of Conversation - she received a Drama Desk award.
Maxwell has earned a reputation for the acuity of her acting. In the New York Times the other day, Ben Brantley wrote, "Whether portraying a scurrilous British witch in the days of the Crusades (in Howard Barker's The Castle), a stroke survivor (Arthur Kopit's Wings) or a self-dramatizing stage star (inThe Royal Family), Ms. Maxwell has an unfailing gift for making you understand where her characters are coming from, even when they don't seem to know themselves."
Barker is Maxwell's favorite playwright. She observed: "He once said that he didn't trust a character who didn't have contradictions." Maxwell pointed out one of Hester's: "She is this hard-fighting liberal, but when her son returns home looking a little long-haired she is as conservative as the Republicans she invites over to dinner. She wants him to clean up and look presentable."
Maxwell is pleased to be back at the Newhouse, where she appeared a decade ago in A Bad Friend, by Jules Feiffer. "The acoustics here are so acute that you can hear everything the audience says. I like feeling so close to them, although it forces you to maintain your concentration." She added: "In the play we are in a living room, so the audience may feel subconsciously that they are home in their own living room."
Such intimacy, Maxwell continued, may contribute to theatregoers' sense of attachment to the world of The City of Conversation. There's also another reason. Everyone has family baggage, and this play takes you deep into family dynamics. The effect is sad, but very true."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com