In My Fair Lady, Linda Mugleston plays Mrs. Pearce, the housekeeper of Henry Higgins. She uses a Scottish accent. “It doesn’t say in the musical’s text that she’s Scottish,” Mugleston told me the other day after a matinee, “but that is how Bart” – the director Bartlett Sher – “wanted her. Which was fine with me.”

How did the part come to Mugleston? “I first heard that Bart was auditioning for the role when I was on deck at Hello, Dolly.” (Mugleston understudied Bette Midler in the title role, and was, for one night only, the only one of Midler’s understudies, to date, to go on.) “And when I heard about the Scottish part that really cinched it for me – I immediately contacted my agent about an audition.” 

Mugleston grew up in the potato-rich town of Shelley, Idaho, where for pocket money she rode on a combine and sorted through spuds. “I don’t think I was in love with Scotland as a child,” Mugleston remembered, “but by the time I got to college” – at Utah State – “I started playing around with a Scottish accent to amuse my friends.” Until My Fair Lady, Mugleston had never had a chance to use the accent onstage, but her offstage practice had served her well. She said: “When I started working with Liz Smith” – Elizabeth Smith is the production’s Dialect Consultant – “I was in pretty good shape. Liz and I decided that Mrs. Pearce would be from Edinburgh: she’s too sophisticated to have come at that time from the Highlands.”

Mugleston has a talent to amuse that transcends accents. As Mrs. Pearce, the actress’s subtle non-verbal reactions cracked people up in rehearsals and frequently give a jolt of pleasure to audiences. “I don’t think of Mrs. Pearce as a comic character. She’s a servant, and she must maintain a certain decorum at all times. But she clearly has opinions, and even the slightest hint of those opinions can draw a reaction. You have to be very careful not to upstage Higgins.”

Mugleston has worked steadily in New York and across the country, performing in many of the great musicals: Anything GoesWonderful TownKiss Me, Kate. But My Fair Lady marks the first time she’s worked in New York on a large thrust. “My college stage had that configuration, and so does the Denver Center, where I’ve worked a lot. So when I walked onto the Beaumont stage, I felt I’d come home.”

A similar feeling of homecoming struck Mugleston a few weeks ago when she took a vacation to Scotland – her first time in the country. “Everything about it seemed strangely familiar to me – the intense green color of the countryside, the number of redheads” – the actress is herself a redhead – “and of course the way people spoke.” 

“I learned even more about the accent -- for example how fast people say the hard ‘o’ sound.”

Does Mugleston worry that her immersion this year in things Scottish will mark her too indelibly? “I do wonder about how long it will take me to shake the accent once My Fair Lady is over. But I wouldn’t mind taking a wee bit of Mrs. Pearce with me to the next project.”

 

Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com