She was the hilariously absurd and severe as the title character in the original production of Christopher Durang's comedy Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. She originated the role of Matthew Broderick's mother Kate Jerome in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. And she won a Tony Award for her Linda Loman in the acclaimed 1999 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. That would seem to be pinnacles enough for any stage career. But a few weeks ago Franz scaled another peak, winning great praise for essaying the lengthy title role in Julie Cho's unsettling drama The Piano Teacher. In the production, she plays a retired music instructor nursing a deep loneliness and some closely guarded secrets about her past. She is onstage the entire duration of the drama and speaks about ninety percent of the lines. Franz spoke to Playbill.com about her latest role of a lifetime.
Playbill.com: We learn about much of the history of the woman you portray during the course of the play. When you create a character, do you build a world for her?
Elizabeth Franz: Yes, I do. They have their own worlds and I can't wait to get inside them. They're better sometimes than our own world.
Playbill.com: Although I would guess you'd rather live in your own world than that of this piano teacher.
EF: A little bit, yes. (Laughs)
Playbill: Can you tell me your history with the play?
EF: I had none. In fact, I think I had heard that Ellen Burstyn was supposed to do it and she got a film and had to pull out, so they came to me. I had just come off a show at Williamstown [Theatre Festival]. I was kind of tired. I didn't know if I wanted to take this kind of thing on. But I read it and I had to do it, even though it looked monumental to me. She resonated enough in me, that I just wanted to discover her, find out about her and her mysteries and her silence and the power of her denial.
Playbill.com: I imagine, given the length of the role, that it must be one of the richest roles of your career.
EF: Yes. I love the two women very much — I'm speaking of the playwright and the director, Kate Whoriskey. I had a meeting with Kate and then I had a phone conversation with Julia and I thought, "I've not had young directors in my life, lately," and I really discovered very much. It was very free and a great deal of fun. We've had a very good journey together. Playbill.com: Have you ever known anybody like the piano teacher, those sort of solitary people who live quiet lives?
EF: My mother was very much like this woman. In fact, she had great denial in her life. When my father died, she married a man and divorced him three times. He was the cruelest, most brutal man I've ever known, and she was addicted to him. She would never say a thing against him.
Playbill.com: So you observed great denial first hand.
EF: Yes, I did, with her during her whole life. She was in and out of mental hospitals a great deal. And then she would either take somebody that was terribly ill, so she would be taking care of somebody other than herself. And that person would become abusive to her. She always picked these extraordinary people in her life, and then she became a recluse. She had no one in her life.
Playbill.com: Did you put some specific characteristics of your mother in your performance.
EF: I can't say that. I don't build performances that way. I commune with the character, talk to them. And then I try to let them inhabit me. So whatever happens physically happens because that's what that character needs.