Jennifer Ehle and I are sitting on the plaza in front of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, a few hours before an Oslo curtain. Behind us is a forested grove, whose London plane trees could be stand-ins for the birches of a Chekhov play. For a moment, the pseudo-Russianness affects us: neither of us can quite believe that it’s been a decade since Ehle played a Russian on the Beaumont stage in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, for which she won a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
The Beaumont is in Ehle’s future, too. In the spring, Oslo, in which she plays the Norwegian diplomat Mona Juul, will transfer to that space. “A Beaumont staging is woven in to the DNA of the Oslo production,” she said. “It’s like an accordion that will widen out from the Newhouse to the Beaumont.”
How does Ehle view Oslo's seven-month hiatus? “I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “It will give the production a further gestation period.” She added, “With a really good text, your brain doesn’t stop working when the run is over. I’m still working on The Real Thing.” She added that there was a similar half-year break between that Stoppard play’s engagement at London’s Donmar Warehouse, in 1999, and its run in London’s West End, in 2000. When the show moved later that year to Broadway, she won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
Ehle’s continuing enthusiasm for rich dramas isn’t confined to Stoppard. “At some level,” she said, “I’d like to do every part I’ve loved again.” On stage alone, she’s handled a long list of great texts: Tartuffe, The Philadelphia Story, Design for Living, Summerfolk – that last bringing more trees, and Chekhov by way of Gorky. As a very young girl, Ehle was in a Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which her mother, Rosemary Harris, played Blanche DuBois. Of Ehle’s father, John Ehle, I will say only that he is one of my favorite living American writers, and that if you’ve never read one of his Appalachia-set novels you’d be unlikely, in my book, to be considered impeccably literate.
Of her character in Oslo, Ehle said that there have been no giant changes in how she played her two months ago, in previews, and how she’s playing her now. But, she said, “With a well-written character, you’re always finding new caverns, sink pits, trap doors. Mostly, there’s been the joy of being able to add beads to my performance.” Unlike Jefferson Mays, who portrays Mona’s husband, Terje-Rod Larsen, Ehle has not met her real-life counterpart. “She’s the Norwegian ambassador in London, and she’s been very busy there post-Brexit.” Like Mays, Ehle said that her main concern is to the character as written by J.T. Rogers. “I feel an added responsibility because I’m playing a public figure who is still alive,” Ehle said, “but I am not doing an impersonation.”
Ehle and other members of the cast have told me that Oslo benefits by its timeframe of 1993 -- by not being an up-to-date story of the Middle East. “It’s close enough so that the issues are still very real,” Ehle said, “but distant enough so that we can see the events more clearly.” And theatre-goers have been eager to think about those events. “Our audiences have been wonderful,” Ehle said. “At some point in the evening, you start to be aware of people leaning crunched up and forward in their seats to listen to the story.” She added: “And because the Newhouse is very intimate we can hear people agreeing or disagreeing under their breath.”
Ehle, who lives with her husband and two children in upstate New York, will be spending part of her months between Oslo engagements in the midst of film festivals. She will be helping to promote A Quiet Passion, in which Cynthia Nixon plays Emily Dickinson and Ehle plays Vinnie, Emily’s sister. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody calls A Quiet Passion “one of the rare movies about a writer that convey the sense that the character, as depicted, is capable of artistic creation at a world-historical level height of achievement.” In the meantime, Little Men, another new, acclaimed movie in which Ehle features, is playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center – right underneath the plaza where she and I had our chat. The movie is set in modern-day Manhattan, but it tips its hat to Chekhov.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.