PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Enid Graham

PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Enid Graham Call Enid Graham the queen of tormented victims -- not the actress, of course, but her recent roles, each of which has called for her to suffer terribly from demons both internal and external. She scored a Tony nomination and Theatre World Award for playing the neurotic child of divorcing parents in Honour and received good notices as the terrified governess in Jeffrey Hatcher's The Turn of the Screw. Now she's playing the emotionally brutalized wife, Alison, in a revival of Look Back in Anger. Reg Rogers co-stars as acid-tongued Jimmy, a character that became a spokesperson, of sorts, for a generation of "angry young men." For her part, Graham is anything but an angry young woman, since she's been lucky enough to make acting her sole profession since graduating from Juilliard in 1992. She continues a love affair with the theatre that started all the way back in the third grade.

Call Enid Graham the queen of tormented victims -- not the actress, of course, but her recent roles, each of which has called for her to suffer terribly from demons both internal and external. She scored a Tony nomination and Theatre World Award for playing the neurotic child of divorcing parents in Honour and received good notices as the terrified governess in Jeffrey Hatcher's The Turn of the Screw. Now she's playing the emotionally brutalized wife, Alison, in a revival of Look Back in Anger. Reg Rogers co-stars as acid-tongued Jimmy, a character that became a spokesperson, of sorts, for a generation of "angry young men." For her part, Graham is anything but an angry young woman, since she's been lucky enough to make acting her sole profession since graduating from Juilliard in 1992. She continues a love affair with the theatre that started all the way back in the third grade.

Playbill On-Line: What was your first brief encounter with live theatre?
Enid Graham: I grew up in Texas and was just finished with the third grade. We went to see the melodrama, The Drunkard at the Strand Street Theatre in Galveston. I just loved it. Then I got involved with their youth group; it was all these 70's actors teaching these kids. [Laughs] It was the community hot spot. But I fell in love with the people.

PBOL: And then your first big role came when?
EG: I was a freshman in high school and was in a community theatre production of Jean Anouilh's The Lark. I played Joan of Arc -- my big "star" turn. It was great! I'm sure I was terrible, but that was the time that made me think I could be an actress.

PBOL: Was the Juilliard training helpful?
EG: I got a lot of great advice from Juilliard. One of the main things I still try to do is strip away a lot of the bullshit and really learn how to talk to somebody and how to listen to somebody. That's the basic formula, always. It's the most basic thing, but the hardest thing to do. Also, learning from the teachers and the people you're dealing with, many of whom I loved and respected... it develops your taste. You can always go back to it.

PBOL: You've just started tackling film roles, including a small part in "Advice From a Caterpillar" [from the play by Douglas Carter Beane] and a larger one in "Herman USA." Are the techniques different?
EG: I was surprised at the difference. I don't have a lot of experience on camera, so I learned a lot. The basics are the same, but it's weird. In the theatre you're so used to working with other actors, which you don't really do on film. There you meet them and do maybe a scene a day. In theatre you're responsible for your entire journey through the play. You can try to do that in a movie, but that's not really your job. Someone else makes those decisions for you, so you don't have to worry about that in some ways. Listen, I'm not a great film actress -- talk to a Meryl Streep and she'd really know. But at this stage, you can work and sculpt and create a moment and create a character, and it can be cut out, so you can't worry about it too much. Plus there are the technical demands of film. The demands of theatre are face downstage and speak loud enough. I thought in film a scene would be more like sitting in a kitchen and having a conversation. But it's more about having to hit certain marks and repeat the same actions to match up to the other shots. It's a new vocabulary of technical demands from me. Still, it's interesting to learn the new things, and you make a lot more money, which is really great. PBOL: As your resume builds, are there older credits you're just now starting to strike off and hope people forget?
EG: Well, I've started to remove some things just because they're old. I didn't really work before I got out of Juilliard, so nothing is that old. At Theatre Virginia, Harvey was my first Equity job, and I kept that on for a while, but not any longer, I don't think.

PBOL: For the most part, the critics have been pretty negative about this revival of Look Back in Anger. Do the reviews come into play?
EG: I do not read them. You can't help but know what they are, so I got the vibe of what they were, but I try as much as I can not to take them into account at all. It's such a damaging, difficult and scary system we have. These four or five opinions... they can close a Broadway show; or if it's in a venue like CSC, determine whether you'll get an audience. I've been talking a lot about this the last couple of days. You open up your heart and work really hard to get a job, you get it, you work like crazy, you have to care so much and try so much. And it really hurts when people are so harsh. It's hard, it's frustrating. It sucks. I certainly don't take those opinions seriously, not as any kind of gospel. Those people have been proven so wrong on other projects.

PBOL: The carping wasn't just with the production, though. Some of it had to do with the play itself, and character motivations. One does have to wonder why Alison, who takes a lot of abuse from Jimmy, simply doesn't leave?
EG: I had such a hard time working on this part. It's so mysterious and strange. I think what we came to some understanding of the relationship, especially since Reg [Rogers] brought a lot to the part. At first glance, Alison seems like a woman who's a victim of a very abusive husband. That's often the easiest conclusion. But the play isn't really that. It's more two people that battle each other, more equally. His way of battling is so obvious, verbal. She has her own weapons. No question, he's a very difficult person to deal with or be in love with. But she's incredibly passive-aggressive, silent, withholding of affection. Maybe she's had to learn to be that way to defend herself. But by the time we come into their relationship, they're locked in a mutual battle. He's reaching out and she's putting up a brick wall. She doesn't know how to equal him in his ferocity, so she invents weapons of removal. And that's what drives him crazy; it's a vicious circle.

PBOL: It still seems a bit one-sided as far as the emotional violence goes.
EG: Who knows why people fall in love? Even in the play, she's always trying to describe what it is about Jimmy that set her on fire. What drew her to him? I think it's that he has his pulse on the heartbeat of real life. He'll get angry, scream and really live. She comes from a world that's more conservative. She recognized something she maybe didn't have in herself. Often when we fall in love, we fall in love with the thing we don't have. Then, when a baby comes into the picture, she goes off and has a horrible, horrible experience, but through it feels a kind of equal to him. "Now I know what you're talking about," she thinks. She's profoundly changed and understands him better. Our production has a twist on the end; she has learned something and changed. But that leaves the viewer wondering, "How can there be two bears, rather than a bear and a squirrel? What will happen to them with the balance thrown off?"

PBOL: What with your work in Honour, Turn of the Screw, and now Anger, you seem to be in a phase of put-upon, endlessly hurt women. Coincidence?
EG: Well, the roles seem so different to me. Sophie (Honor) is different from the governess in Screw and not like Alison at all. It's just drama, and tortured people are the center of drama. Plus I was also in As Bees in Honey Drown [as Amber] for a short while, so I enjoy comedy, too. It just so happens I've been doing these big dramas.

PBOL: And if you weren't doing dramas or comedies, or making your living this way...?
EG: It would've been great fun to be a teacher. I'm not sure if I could have done it, but I think I would have liked that. There's no money there, but, oh well, these are the professions we choose.

-- By David Lefkowitz