I began my interview with Sally Murphy by reading the thumbnail description of her character in Admissions, provided at the beginning of the script, by Joshua Harmon. “Ginnie Peters, 50s, very liberal, MAJOR WASP, stay-at-home Mom.” How would Murphy herself describe her?
“She’s a loving, adoring mother, very protective of her husband and of her son, Perry. I don’t think she’s quite like anyone else I’ve done. Her husband and son aren’t in the play, but their life together offstage is very real.”
Customarily, an actor figures out a back-story for her character, so that the performance may provide a sense of what she’s doing offstage in the past or present. In Admissions, Murphy had help in this process.
“Probably more than with any other character, Ginnie got many rewrites from Josh. She has three scenes, and Josh played around a lot with what she says.” Murphy added: “I’ve done a lot of new work” – prior to Admissions, Murphy acted in three premieres, one by David Rabe, two by Tracy Letts – “and it’s unusual to have a playwright give you so many details about your life in the past.”
Examples? “There were a couple of versions in which Sherri” – a friend of Ginnie’s and the head of admissions at a prep school – “says bluntly: ‘You don’t work.’ As if that means Ginnie’s life has less stress in it than Sherri’s does. And there was a version that said Ginnie had money from her father, and that’s why she and her husband could afford to send their son to Yale.”
Murphy herself went to Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois, after a childhood in adjacent Chicago, a city to which she remains connected because of family and because of being an ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre.
One of Murphy’s first professional experiences was at Lincoln Center Theater, playing Julie Jordan in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Carousel.
“I can’t even put into words how many memories I have of the building because of that show,” Murphy said. “Carousel is seared into my flesh. It’s as if it happened a minute ago. I feel like I could walk right back up to my dressing room. We had nothing but fun.”
In A Man of No Importance, a new musical Murphy did at LCT, in 2002, the fun was organized. “Roger Rees was in the cast, and he would put together all these contests among the actors. Once we had an art competition, and all our work was plastered on the walls backstage. We also had a limerick contest. And one day he and Luther Creek, another actor, said, ‘We have something for you. It was a magic wand. The guys had fashioned it out of wood and duct tape”.
Murphy has fashioned a career rich in both straight plays and in musicals. Does she sing much when she’s not doing it onstage? “I don’t,” she answered. A minute later, though, she corrected herself: “I listen to music all the time and sing to it – right now I’m obsessed with a recording of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington called ‘Ella at Duke’s Place.’”
Murphy appeared in a 2004 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, directed by David Leveaux. “David gave me a great piece of direction, about why characters sing in musicals. ‘You sing because you must,’ he said. You feel something so much that you have to sing it. I always take that advice with me.”
As for how she approaches a straight play, Murphy said: “Figuring out subtext is very important. Because I had several scenarios of individual scenes, written by Josh for Admissions, that I rehearsed and memorized, I feel as if I had a world-class playwright writing my subtext. The subtext is more present in me with this project than if I’d done that work on my own. I’m so grateful.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.