In Greater Clements, the first complete sentence uttered by the character Maggie begins, “No, I’m fine.” I have seen the drama five times and I have never heard Judith Ivey, who portrays Maggie, say the words the same way. I can sense her delight in having options. The possibilities are enhanced by the fact that she began creating her marvelously detailed performance in the presence of a living playwright. She recently told an interviewer: “There are 15 different ways to read one sentence with just three words in it. When you have the playwright, you can do all 15 and then say, ‘Which one do you like? It’s thrilling!”
I feel fortunate to have witnessed Ivey’s Maggie so many times. Unlike me, most theatergoers see a play once and would lack a basis for comparison. They may assume that after opening night an actor locks in a performance, especially when the performance, like that of Ivey, has been acclaimed by audiences and critics.
It isn’t so. In fact, in my experience the more skilled that performers are the more likely they are to bring changes as the run goes on. They have what Shakespeare said Cleopatra possessed: “Infinite variety.”
Like Ivey, some performers may employ nightly variations to stave off staleness: they need to keep the story engaging to themselves in order to engage the audience. Their changes are a reflection of their humanity: they aren’t machines but biological organisms whose moods reflect the day-to-day fitness of their physical apparatus. Audiences may assume that professionals leave their problems behind once the curtain goes up and they are onstage. But that’s almost impossible when, say, you took a slight fall on the way to the theater and you have pain shooting up your upper arm, or you’re fighting the onset of a cold and you have to make adjustments in your voice that night so as not to make the character sound too stuffy.
In the case of Ivey, the nightly variations relate to a technique she’s honed expertly over the years. If some performers are operatic in delivery – employing a strict approach in order to hit the notes exactly the same every night – Ivey’s method is more akin to jazz. Several of her Greater Clements cast-mates have told me that Ivey likes to improvise. That doesn’t mean she veers from the text, but that she varies the way she plumbs the text’s meanings. With a script as deep as that Samuel D. Hunter has provided in Greater Clements the performer has more opportunities for interpretation than with something superficial.
Hunter’s text requires a range of emotions, nowhere more than in Ivey’s role. In her first scene, mostly with the character of Olivia, Maggie seems to be operating on a joshing, superficial level. But that sequence is deceptive in terms of tone. Nina Hellman, who portrays Olivia, told me that the actors probably rehearsed that scene more than any other. “It’s oddly complicated,” Hellman said, “not only because it sets up what follows but because we’re already navigating a lot of the anxiety that explodes later.”
Edmund Donovan, who is Joe, Maggie’s son, told me that he marvels every night how adroitly Ivey navigates all the shifts of tone. “I’m not sure how she does it so brilliantly,” he said, “other than it has to do with her innate talent and her experience on stage.”
Ivey has directed many stage productions, and when I watch her in Greater Clements I can almost feel a directorial sense of stage placement, as if she were able both to be in front of the footlights and to observe herself up there on stage. This preternatural ability doesn’t come across as a surfeit of self-consciousness but as something more intuitive.
She has been honing her gifts for four decades. She has given Tony-award-winning performances in David Rabe’s Hurlyburly and Neil Dunn’s Steaming and she received an Outer Critics Circle nomination for her work in LCT’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’s A Fair Country.
More recently, Ivey received a Tony nom for The Heiress and appeared opposite Helen Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience. In the latter outing, Ivey played another Maggie – Margaret Thatcher. But she seems more excited to perform the Maggie in Hunter’s play. She has said: “It’s really a challenge to look at oneself and rely on my own personality rather than going and putting a big wig on and a fake British accent.” And further: “I’m never really asked to play myself onstage, so it’s a challenge to rely on my personality.”
It’s a challenge she has met beautifully.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com