Mary Testa, who plays Granmama in The Gardens of Anuncia, likens herself to a pinball. “Whatever I hit up against I deal with,” she told me recently. In Michael John LaChiusa’s piece, based on the childhood of the show’s director, Graciela Daniele, Granmama must bump against the myriad obstacles faced by a woman in 1940s Argentina.
“My character,” Testa told me, “lives apart from her husband. This was hardly the norm at the time.” To her granddaughter, Testa added, “she imparted the knowledge that it was okay both to be deeply in love with a man and to realize you will be happier not sharing a home with him. Women were not supposed to think that way.”
Granmama also chooses not to present herself as a pliable person bowing to authority. “She isn’t afraid to say out loud that the Perons are lying pigs who exploit the poor,” Testa said. “This is a risky thing to do, given what happens to her daughter.”
If Granmama sees her life, in part, as a series of obstacles, Testa sees her own career more fluidly. “I see myself interacting with talented people. The experience of doing a role or a project is what matters to me. In my 48 years as a professional actor, it’s not stardom that has mattered but the opportunity to express myself as an artist.”
Her varieties of expression have been various. She has had a long association with the composer/lyricist William Finn, including his musical The New Brain, which she did, in 1998, at LCT, and, in a different role, again this past summer at Barrington Stage. She has been involved with LaChiusa on seven shows, some produced and some not (in the latter category sits a tantalizing project-in-development about the Gabors). And there have been several Broadway stints; she received Tony nominations for On the Town, 42nd Street, and Oklahoma.
But, Testa insists, “I don’t have a plan about the roles I want to play. I expect that things will come my way and generally they have.” She is relatively serene about The Actor’s Dilemma -- waiting for the next job -- and about the waiting that is central to the actor’s life in general. “I don’t mind that aspect of things,” she said. “I don’t mind waiting around a film or TV set – you can have fascinating conversations then.”
The experience of killing time crops up in The Gardens of Anuncia in Granmama’s musical number, “Waiting/Dreaming.” “Her husband would be off at sea,” Testa said, “and she would be waiting for him to send money, and longing for him sexually. But then he would come home and she’d be reminded again of how he smelled and how he chewed his food. And she realizes she can only retain her love for him if she kicks him out.”
Both “Waiting/Dreaming,” a duet with Granpapa, and “Miss the Man,” Granmama’s solo, are beautiful numbers. Are they difficult to sing? “Not as difficult as some of the other LaChiusa songs I’ve performed,” Testa replied.
Testa is not obsessive about protecting her voice between performances, even though she does have a routine do make sure she is ready when she opens her mouth onstage. “I do wear a mask everywhere when I’m out in the world. And I live alone, so I’m not spending the day chatting with someone and using up my voice. I’m fortunate that my natural instrument is very strong. That’s a big help when you’re dealing with the big emotions of my character in The Gardens of Anuncia.
Brendan Lemon is a freelance journalist in New York.