When I asked Ann McDonough about Roberta, the character she plays in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, she replied, “She’s a good person. She cares deeply about improving the prep school where she’s worked for years. But I think she’s a little annoyed at the resistance she gets when she tries to keep doing things her way.”
Another kind of resistance has been more pleasurable to McDonough during the course of the run: the resistance provided by water. “Ben Edelman – who plays prep-school senior Charlie Mason – “decided that a class in aquatic cycling would be helpful to my sense of balance. Even though the class, held at Aqua in Tribeca, doesn’t stress balance improvement, I decided that doing it would be fun.”
McDonough, who was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up primarily in Baltimore County, Maryland, where she eventually attended Towson State, had one practical concern about doing the class. “It was at noon on Saturday, and lasted only 45 minutes. I was worried that we wouldn’t make it back uptown in time for the 2 o’clock matinee.” The class, she said, “was thrilling. You’re on bikes in four feet of water in a pool, with your body partially out of the water. The resistance to your motion creates exertion, but it’s the kind of workout that feels great.”
Considerably less great: the car ride back uptown. “There was some traffic, and I was a basket case. Ben is 25 – I have three children around that age – and he kept saying: ‘Don’t worry. We’ll be at the theater at 1:24.’ He kept checking the GPS and reassuring me that we’d arrive at 1:24.”
They arrived exactly then.
Bikes popped up at another point in our conversation, while discussing McDonough’s early days as an actor in New York, in the 1970s and 1980s. “We would make $95 a week, eat pizza, and bike everywhere. I did plays by Durang, Gurney, Wasserstein.” That last writer, Wendy Wasserstein, had a hand in McDonough meeting her husband, the actor and Episcopal priest Jack Gilpin. “We were at a party,” McDonough remembered, “and we looked over at Jack. I told Wendy, ‘He’s too good for me.’ And Wendy replied, ‘No, he’s not.’ That encouragement was helpful.”
McDonough’s current Playbill bio says she has worked for LCT twice, in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Dinner at Eight, both at the Vivian Beaumont. She also appeared there in Trelawny of the ‘Wells,’ in 1975, when offerings were produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival. “That was quite a cast,” McDonough said. There were twenty-one actors, including Mary Beth Hurt, John Lithgow, Mandy Patinkin, and Meryl Streep, all getting their foothold. With Streep, McDonough performed three years later in a TV version of Wasserstein’s “Uncommon Women and Others.” During the filming, McDonough said, Streep “was such a help to me. Very encouraging, while telling the truth about the work.”
Truth-telling, McDonough and I agree, remains a crucial function of theater in our distraction-rich age. “Sometimes,” she said, “people need to hear things, whether they know it or not. Not just in the sense of being fed what’s good for them, but in the sense of being stimulated to think.” Admissions, she added, “is very good at this. Yet it’s also very entertaining. Sometimes, our audiences rock with laughter throughout. It’s been a real pleasure to do this play as part of my re-immersion in acting” – which has included recent productions of Annie Baker’s John and Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation. While happy to be back onstage, McDonough admitted, “I’m not riding my bike in New York like I used to.”
Except when there’s water.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com