Mary Beth Peil has only one number all to herself in Anastasia, but it’s a killer, and almost certainly what earned her a second Tony Award nomination 32 years after the first one. Although she’s spent the intervening decades as a working actress on and off-Broadway, you undoubtedly know her best for her two television roles: First as “Grams” Ryan in 66 episodes of Dawson’s Creek, and then as Jackie Florrick, Julianna Margulies’ manipulative mother-in-law on The Good Wife.
“The Good Wife was seven seasons, during which time I did Broadway and off-Broadway nonstop. It was really extraordinary to be able to shoot a series like that and have the TV people accommodate the theater schedule.”
In 1985, Peil made her Broadway debut as Mrs. Anna opposite Yul Brynner, who was reprising for the last time the role he created, and owned, in The King and I. Until then, she had worked primarily as a lyric soprano specializing in Mozart and Mimi (Puccini’s Boheme heroine being a favorite role). She also created the part of Alma Winemiller in Lee Hoiby’s opera adaptation of the Tennessee Williams drama Summer and Smoke (New York magazine’s music critic Peter G. Davis wrote that “her wistful delicate features and inner radiance rivet attention”).
These days, however, she’s onstage at the Broadhurst Theatre playing the Dowager Empress Maria Fyodorovna in Anastasia, grandmother of the title character. “Nana” and Anya have lost their family, the Romanovs, brutally murdered in July, 1918, when the Dowager Empress already had moved to Paris. (For decades there was speculation, now definitively disproven, that Anastasia survived; her imagined escape formed the basis of the 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman and the 1997 Twentieth Century Fox animated film and, now, the Broadway musical.)
Grandmother opens the show with the fragment of a lullaby to young Anastasia, and then she’s gone until Act II. In Paris, the Dowager Empress has become so used to charlatans trying to pass off impostors as her long-lost grand-daughter that she sings the Weltschmerzian ballad “Close the Door,” announcing that no longer will she interview the urchins trying to pass themselves off as Anastasia: “In my heart I know/You’re a lie that I’ve waited for.” Of course, that’s the cue for Anastasia to appear.
“It feels like the perfect fit at the perfect time,” Peil told me a few days ago, during a conversation in her subterranean dressing room. “I’ve been a Russo-phile, if that’s the word, for 50 years. It came together in this piece,” she said, adding “it’s b’shert,” a Yiddish word connoting something preordained.
What had come together? I asked.
“The anger, but the kind of anger that comes from dead,” she replied. “Her soul is dead, she might as well be. It’s this dance. She gets her hopes up and then she’s dead again, and she’s angry again. The depth of that and the willingness to go there – you’re tempted to just want to sing it and wear these beautiful costumes, but it’s a journey.”
Peil had been playing a non-singing role in The Visit when director Darko Tresnjak asked her to take part in a workshop of the show. That was followed by a full production at Hartford Stage, where Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder) is artistic director.
“I did the workshop and then we went to Hartford, which was an ideal way to do a new musical,” she said.
Peil, who is 76, is used to working on TV by day and onstage at night – especially since The Good Wife was filmed in Brooklyn and many in the cast – notably Alan Cumming – also were appearing onstage.
“The Good Wife was seven seasons, during which time I did Broadway and off-Broadway nonstop,” she said. “It was really extraordinary to be able to shoot a series like that and have the TV people accommodate the theater schedule.” Having most of the first act to herself in the dressing room significantly eases the physical demands, she said. Peil trained for the opera at Northwestern. I asked how she protects her voice.
“It’s a mystery to me,” she replied. “After all the training in opera and then the de-training to do musical theater and then the de-training of that to speak like a person and not like a singer, I feel like I’m finally starting to understand who this” – she pointed to her throat – “is. There’s another entity in there that changes as my body changes, as my mind and heart change. I don’t care what it sounds like, I care what it feels like. It feels like me.”
As for the future, Peil herself is a bit wistful. “I have a role that I would love to have done, but I’m closing the door on it,” she said, echoing her song and citing Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night: “Mary Tyrone. That won’t happen. But I would love to do the old lady in A Little Night Music. That could happen.”
Although Anastasia failed to win a Tony nomination for Best Musical, its appeal to families looking for a feisty, Disney-type heroine is in evidence at every performance. (The show also won a second Tony nomination, for Linda Cho’s costumes.) And Peil never knows what to expect when she exits the stage door of the Broadhurst, which is sandwiched between the Shubert Theatre, to the east, where Hello, Dolly! is running, and the Majestic Theatre, to the west, where The Phantom of the Opera holds court.
But there will be girls.
“Every night, they lineup from the stage door to Phantom,” Peil said, her eyes widening. “The other night, two women – I guess matrons is what you’d call them – came over from Dolly and they saw all these kids. They stuck in there and said, ‘What you’re doing for this generation is so fantastic…we didn’t see it but will you sign our Dolly programs anyway?’ Isn’t that great?”