"I'm no sweet young thing anymore," Kathleen Turner declared. This statement, made in her trademark raspy tenor in her backstage dressing room, couldn't be more true. And thank goodness.
The veteran actress, Tony and Academy Award nominee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) is bringing her experience to Off-Broadway's New World Stages, where she is performing in the world premiere of the new play Would You Still Love Me If... In a recent turn of events, Turner has also stepped in to direct the production of the John S. Anastasi work, which explores the consequences when Danya (Sofia Jean Gomez), the long-time lover of Addison (Rebecca Brooksher), decides to transition from being a woman to a man.
The questions about love that Would You Still Love Me If... inspires initially drew Turner, who plays Danya's mother Victoria, to the production, she said, adding that she considers a good play to be one that asks questions, especially ones regarding transgender vs. sexuality.
"It's when Danya's character says, 'Look into my eyes. Who do you see? The soul you love will not change.' I thought, 'Could that be true? Is there some essence in us that's so unique that no matter how much estrogen or testosterone we have is unchanging?' I loved that thought."
The timeliness of the play, following Caitlyn Jenner's debut on the cover of Vanity Fair and subsequent article and reality TV show, was not lost on the cast, each of whom embarked on a great deal of personal and academic research in order to bring their characters to life.
"This isn't just a story of following the transition, but also how that affects everyone around that person transitioning," Brooksher said. "It's a love story, and you see both sides of that decision… That dishonesty, and stuff like that, mirrors a lot of the basic arguments of a relationship, and then you're talking about changing your identity. We've never had that conversation onstage before — or not much. It's been exciting to have that conversation and see how it affects people in the audience afterwards and what kind of conversations they want to have."
Take an Exclusive Look Inside Rehearsal with Kathleen Turner and the Cast of Would You Still Love Me If…
The show's impact on the audience will stay with them beyond a night at the theatre, Gomez said, adding she hopes they will possess more empathy and openness to the transgender community today as well as its history.
"[Members of the transgender coommunity] don't even know how far it goes back historically," she said. "They're still trying to figure out where their lineage goes to. Native Americans have a third spirit. They had a name for it even before it had a name — the he/she, the she/he, they had an acceptance to it in their communities...These stories are all needing to be uncovered."
"There's so much carry-over meaning for just being authentic," Roya Shanks, who plays the lesbian surgeon, Dr. Gerard, said. "She has lines about the need for being authentic, and obviously that resonates with any human being, no matter what their personal struggles may be. It does bring up interesting and complicated questions about the personal quest for authenticity, what repercussions that may have for friends, family, loved ones. It gets thorny. Those are, I think, the questions we hope people will be asking."
Turner's decision to take on directing the play was announced Sept. 14, 12 days before the first preview performance. Adding that she was unable to be involved in the design and other offstage aspects of the production, Turner said she took on directing the actors because she thought the play was worth developing.
It's not Turner's first time behind the table — or directing a play she herself is acting in: She had previously directed and acted in The Killing of Sister George.
"I do enjoy directing tremendously," she said. "I have a ball. I'm not as wild about acting in the piece at the same time. You know, I did that before with The Killing of Sister George, and I learned a good lesson. I learned I was so focused on the directing that I [almost] forgot about my character. I learned that I don't think that that's my best to split focus, but luckily this is a supporting role."
Another appeal of the play was its cast of female characters — a unique experience for Brooksher, who said, "I had never been part of that before. I [usually] feel like I am one woman in a show of men. It's a whole new dynamic."
"It was a major, major draw," added Shanks. "The doctor — there's no reason she needs to be a woman, necessarily, but the fact that she is is fantastic." The small amount of substantial parts for women in theatre is a concern for Shanks, who said she was surprised by the lack of awareness from people outside of the industry. She shared she has been unable to audition for roles due to her height, because the director did not want a woman to be taller than the leading man.
Lack of substantial roles for women is no surprise to Turner, who made her starring film debut in 1981 in "Body Heat" and has been known for her sultry performances of seductive women. She has continued to work as the years have passed and is not shy about sharing her opinions on the portrayal of women in Hollywood.
"There's endless, endless comments on your looks," she said. "Always. I occasionally just get fed up with somebody saying, 'Oh, you still look good.' It's the intonation, it's the assumption that you wouldn't because you're in your sixties now. It gets very tiring. That coupled with the lack of respect that we have generally in this country for experience. We don't respect age and the fact that working for 38 years is worth listening to. We really don't. I think we're very disrespectful to our people."
Respect for women — or lack thereof — is also a focus of Turner's energy. An outspoken advocate for Planned Parenthood and equal pay for women, and a board member of People for the American Way, she recently spoke at Planned Parenthood Affiliates in Albany, NY, and frequently travels the country to fundraise and bring attention.
"I was incredibly shocked this last week at the Senate hearing at the incivility and the disrespect," she said. "I don't know how people talk to each other in that tone of voice, and I thought [Cecile Richards] was extraordinary that she handled it as well as she did. And, what I can't understand is a couple of things: One, we know those videos were heavily edited and they were arranged. We know that. We know that [Carly] Fiorina said that, you know, a video of a baby's legs kicking on the table is pure sh*t, it's just pure bullsh*t. We know, and nobody seems to mind, nobody says, 'Stop it!', which I just find unbelievable… Oh, f*ck me, you got me started now."
Recalling a conversation at a recent event, Turner shared the fears of a woman about lack of preventative care, saying, "This woman whose clinic was not an abortion provider, never had been, but was closed, came up to me in tears. She said that last year, the year before, she had been able to diagnose five women with breast cancer in the early stages. And, now, when would women be diagnosed at what cost to their lives and their finances is unknown, because, of course, Texas also refused the Affordable Care Act. It is violence against women now. It really is. It is a question of abortion, which is a right, which we must retain. It is killing women... It's not about abortion. It's about controlling women."
Being controlled in the audition room is another experience Gomez shared, recalling times when she was told she was "not womanly enough" and should present herself as "more ladylike."
"I'm like, 'What does that mean? And why are there four men behind a table telling me what kind of woman I should be? I was born a woman. I am a woman. And I've been practicing this for a couple of years now — how to be a woman.' It frightens me because the younger generations are doing it too. Young women coming out of these educational programs are being told by these men across the table how to be women rather than accepting their own sexuality and identity and growing into that, and us serving to them what a woman is onstage, what our stories actually are vs. the male perspective. I'm carrying that a lot when I go into rooms that are mostly male-dominated, trying to educate what a woman is, what the woman is in that play… I've had to dress up within an inch of my life and put heels on and push my boobs up and put on a wig with longer hair and the little sexy outfit with the tight skirt because I was told I need to look sexier for a role. I think as actors we've all had those stories. But they're still existing. That's what I'm shocked by."
The women of the cast all spoke of their awareness of the responsibility of presenting a play with a transgender protagonist.
"John has been developing this for three years, and he got so much feedback from readings. He feels the pressure of the community trying to get certain aspects in," Brooksher said. "He wants to honor the whole community. That's been a concern of ours."
"Playing a woman transitioning to a man — I want to honor that community as much as possible," Gomez said. "But also do my job as an actor and do the circumstances that are written in this play: creating this singular story that has these universal touches to it that everyone can relate to in their own ways and still deliver a very unique voice and vision of these women in this moment in this time in their lives."
But, Turner added, none of their research has involved watching "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" — "I wouldn't watch that if you paid me!"
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)