Shirley Knight Plays a Desperate Former Housewife in Cycling Past the Matterhorn, Opening Sept. 29

News   Shirley Knight Plays a Desperate Former Housewife in Cycling Past the Matterhorn, Opening Sept. 29 Life is at the crossroads for a London mother who is going blind and her daughter, a mediocre psychic, in the Off-Broadway premiere of Deborah Grimberg's Cycling Past the Matterhorn, opening Sept. 29 at the Harold Clurman Theatre in Theatre Row.

Shirley Knight ("Desperate Housewives," and a Tony Award winner for Kennedy's Children) plays the mum Esther, who has made mistakes in her life, and Carrie Preston (Broadway's The Rivals, The Tempest) is the adult daughter, Amy, who resents her mother's shortcomings.

The relationship begins to shift when Esther makes a plan to get healthy and go on a mountain biking trek to witness the titular European mountain.

Performances began Sept. 18. The play by New York-based British writer Grimberg made its world premiere in 2003 at the New York International Fringe Festival and was further refined in a Detroit staging in 2004. Nina Jacques is the only actress retained from the Fringe run.

In the warm comedy, Amy's American fiance, Doug — played by Ben Fox, who was George in James Naughton's Our Town on Broadway — is hoping for a life in the States. Brenda Wehle, the Obie Award winner for Off-Broadway's Talking Heads, co-stars as Anita, Esther's fiercely loyal middle-aged sister.

The 12-week engagement is produced by Farm Avenue Productions and Joseph Smith. Eleanor Holdridge directs. The production also features New York-based British actress Nina Jacques (SPF 2005's Map Maker's Sorrow), the one holdover from the earlier Fringe world premiere.

Knight won a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play for Kennedy's Children and was nominated for a Best Actress Tony for The Young Man From Atlanta. She was Oscar nominated for "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and "Sweet Bird of Youth." She plays Bree's grieving mother-in-law in TV's "Desperate Housewives."

Here's how the producers bill the play: "Set in contemporary London, Cycling Past the Matterhorn is a fast-paced comedy about a mother and daughter at a crossroads. Amy is a young sidewalk psychic (with mediocre abilities) who earns her modest living forecasting the troubled lives of the British public. Amy's eccentric mother, Esther (Shirley Knight), has recently been left by her husband and has just discovered she is slowly going blind. Amy, fearing being stuck as Esther’s caretaker, considers marrying her American boyfriend to escape the predicament while Esther decides to forge ahead with her life (saying 'If Stevie Wonder can do it than so can I!'), and joins a cycling excursion in Switzerland to see the mountains while she still can."

The design team includes Beowulf Boritt (scenic), Kiki Smith (costume), Les Dickert (lighting) and Scott Killian (sound design and original compositions).

The performance schedule is Tuesday-Saturday at 8 PM; with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. The Harold Clurman Theatre is at Theatre Row is at 410 W. 42nd Street.

Tickets are $55 and are available from Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200. For more information, visit www.cyclingpastthematterhorn.com.

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Grimberg received the Sherrill C. Corwin Metropolitan Theatre Award in 2000 for Cycling Past the Matterhorn. The playwright told Playbill.com Aug. 9 that following the Fringe run in 2003, she refined the script and strengthened the relationship between the mother and her sister (the older women of the play, to be played by Knight and Wehle) and tried to "tell less and show more" about the mother and daughter — their "expectations, disappointments and realities."

"I've made a lot of changes," she said. "The main change I've made is I've strengthened the relationship between the two sisters…strengthened the sense of who these women are, and how they feel invisible at their age…"

Following a hybrid Equity/academic staging by The Theatre Company of The University of Detroit Mercy in fall 2004, Grimberg said she realized "there was too much telling rather than showing. I found that less is more, I've cut of a lot of the dialogue that was too on the nose and wasn't respecting the audience's intelligence."

Grimberg sees the play as "definitely about a mother and daughter," and how the 24-year-old Amy judges her mum and "sees her mother as being stuck."

She added, "What she isn't seeing — but the audience is — is the mother is going to the gym and being active and recapturing her life, even though she is struggling with the physical loss of her sight. At the end of the play, if Amy does become her mother it's not such a bad thing."

Does the shoddy psychic finally "see"? The climax is a quiet one, not full of mystical and paranormal wonder — and not cheaply upbeat, either, the playwright said.

Grimberg, a British playwright now living in New York, is the recipient of the Ensemble Studio Theatre's 2003 James Hammerstein Emerging Playwright Award and was also offered EST's Dasha Epstein playwriting fellowship. Her other plays include Screaming Violet, Hellmouth and Wrapped in Gold (2002 New York International Fringe Festival) and The Honey Makers (2003 EST One Act Marathon).

Director Eleanor Holdridge most recently directed The Promise at Shakespeare and Company and will be directing The Crucible at Perseverance Theater and Mary Stuart at The Pearl Theatre. She has also been artistic director of the Yale Cabaret (where she staged Titus Andronicus, Chess, Alice Down the Hole); resident assistant director for The Shakespeare Theatre and resident director at New Dramatists.

Knight made her Broadway debut in 1964 in the revival of Chekhov's Three Sisters, directed by Lee Strasberg. Her other Broadway credits include We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Watering Place. On film she starred in her Oscar-nominated role in "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," and in 1962 she was also nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for "Sweet Bird of Youth." Her other films include "The Group," "The Rain People," "Dutchman," "Endless Love," "Petulia," "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" and "As Good As It Gets."

Wehle received Obie and Outer Critics Circle Awards in 2003 for her portrayal of Celia in The Hand of God, one of the solo plays in the acclaimed production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. She was a member of the Guthrie Theatre acting company for 10 years, under the artistic direction of Garland Wright. At Williamstown Theater Festival this summer, she appeared in On the Razzle as Fräulein Blumenblatt.

Carrie Preston, Brenda Wehle and Shirley Knight in <i>Cycling Past the Matterhorn</i>.
Carrie Preston, Brenda Wehle and Shirley Knight in Cycling Past the Matterhorn. Photo by Joan Marcus
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