A Mother’s Journey

Special Features   A Mother’s Journey Swoosie Kurtz stars as a grief-stricken woman confronting the loss of her child in Bryony Lavery’s powerful and compassionate play, Frozen
Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen
Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen Photo by Dixie Sheridan

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The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.—Pozzo in Waiting for Godot

Swoosie Kurtz has never had a child, "but you can't get to the age I am without losing people," says the actress whose performance as Nancy Shirley, mother of the raped and murdered ten-year-old Rhona in Frozen, will stun you, melt you, in every breath.

In her business, of course, AIDS has brought home the loss of people time and time again.

She stops and thinks a while, just like her character in the play — what Ms. Kurtz does with silences surely goes back in a direct line to Eleonora Duse — and then the daughter of World War II's Lt. Col. Frank Kurtz says: "I grew up on Air Force bases. When I was in the fourth grade we were based in Tampa, Florida. One day I was playing with a girlfriend, out in the yard. We looked up and saw these two planes that collided and crashed. It turned out that her father was in one of those planes." Of all the transfixing moments in the Frozen that has journeyed from London to Off-Broadway's East 13th Street to, now, Broadway's Circle in the Square Theatre, none is more withering than when Nancy Shirley learns from the police that the place her daughter was killed, and where Rhona's remains have been under a coating of earth for 20 years, was . . .

that shed on Far Forest Lane
He took her there
all the time we were first looking
she was just over there
I went past it!
How many times? . . .

if I'd thought...earlier
got up from gardening earlier
gone down there
spotted a light
heard a . . . oh . . . sound . . .

"Yes," says Swoosie Kurtz, toying with a spinach cannelloni ("no mushrooms, please") in midafternoon Sardi's, "we all have those if-onlys, those what-ifs. 'If only I'd gone 15 minutes earlier' . . . 'If only he'd stopped to pick up that bag' . . . But in this case, it's an if-only of self-torture."

Staring down on Ms. Kurtz from a wall 20 feet away is herself in caricature. "A watershed moment in my career," dryly remarks the actress who won her first Tony Award in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July in 1981 and her second in John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves in 1986. "That face used to be over the men's-room door. I must be doing well."

She is that, and so is Frozen and everyone connected with it: Brían F. O'Byrne (recent Tony Award winner as Best Featured Actor in a Play) as Ralph, the banality-of-evil killer pedophile; Laila Robins as the researcher who looks into his motives and abused childhood; and Doug Hughes, the director who has scraped all this down to the bone and made it sing. Not to mention Bryony Lavery, the Englishwoman of Ms. Kurtz's own generation who wrote it.

"When I first read this play last summer," says Kurtz, "it knocked the wind out of me. I can't imagine what it is to watch it. I've never been in a play that people say the kind of things they say about this one. It gets inside people's hearts and won't let go.

"I mean, this woman has survived 20 years of darkness and grief, navigating her way past the land mines. In a lot of scenes I come on and do these very brief, very tense monologues, and go off, each time to the point of breakdown. That's hard enough to do in a scene, a real scene, but here it's six lines, run off, change clothes, rush back, and it's 20 years later.

"The other night I was sitting there on one chair, Brían in the other chair [the cold, blazing scene in which Nancy forgives the murderer of her daughter], and the lights went down on me, and it was like some great piece of violin music, you're playing the violin, too fast, too slow, and then it goes eeeffkk! Like brain surgery, and if you go one 32nd of an inch to the left, the patient dies.

"As an actor, you know, you always have a tendency to do your Academy Award-winning weeping scene. I said to Doug [Hughes]: 'I don't get to do that in this play.' Doug said: 'Yes, the object is to see you on the brink of that.'"

With a restorative laugh: "What we don't see is Nancy offstage — weeks and weeks of being a total soggy mess."

Ms. Kurtz had so much faith in this play, so much emotional investment in it, that at crunch time in the matter of moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway, "I personally got on the phone — and I'm very shy on the phone" — to help raise the needed $1.5 million. "I didn't think it was in my DNA. . . . Plays," she says, "we're talking about plays. Let's pretend. Being other people. It's ridiculous. It's like a drug. The more I do it, the more I want to do it."

Just keep at it, Swoosie. You'll probably get it right one of these times.

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