PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Mercedes Ruehl

By Christine Ehren
21 May 2002

It's been a breath-taking decade for theatre and film actress Mercedes Ruehl. In 1991, she won the Best Actress Tony Award for playing the damaged Bella in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers. That same year, the fiery, raven-haired actress appeared in "The Fisher King," as Anne Napolitano, lover of Jeff Bridges' damaged DJ. She won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the role. Since then, Ruehl has starred in several movies, including a film recreation of Bella in 1993's "Lost in Yonkers" and garnered a second Tony nomination for 1995's The Shadow Box (the same season she also starred in The Rose Tattoo on Broadway). In Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, she is Stevie, the wife of Bill Pullman's adulterous architect and a strong, intelligent woman who tries desperately to understand her husband's affair — especially after the other woman turns out to be a goat named Sylvia. Her character is both hilarious and heart-breaking as she hurls crockery about the couple's well appointed apartment setting. She rails and screams at her husband and then stalks out, leaving the audience wondering if she will resort to murder — or slaughter, as the case may be. The play has been critically well-received and netted Tony nominations for Ruehl and playwright Edward Albee. Ruehl spoke to Playbill On-Line's Christine Ehren about gauging the audience's response — and her own approach — to one of the most talked-about plays of this, or any other, Broadway season.



It's been a breath-taking decade for theatre and film actress Mercedes Ruehl. In 1991, she won the Best Actress Tony Award for playing the damaged Bella in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers. That same year, the fiery, raven-haired actress appeared in "The Fisher King," as Anne Napolitano, lover of Jeff Bridges' damaged DJ. She won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the role. Since then, Ruehl has starred in several movies, including a film recreation of Bella in 1993's "Lost in Yonkers" and garnered a second Tony nomination for 1995's The Shadow Box (the same season she also starred in The Rose Tattoo on Broadway). In Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, she is Stevie, the wife of Bill Pullman's adulterous architect and a strong, intelligent woman who tries desperately to understand her husband's affair — especially after the other woman turns out to be a goat named Sylvia. Her character is both hilarious and heart-breaking as she hurls crockery about the couple's well appointed apartment setting. She rails and screams at her husband and then stalks out, leaving the audience wondering if she will resort to murder — or slaughter, as the case may be. The play has been critically well-received and netted Tony nominations for Ruehl and playwright Edward Albee. Ruehl spoke to Playbill On-Line's Christine Ehren about gauging the audience's response — and her own approach — to one of the most talked-about plays of this, or any other, Broadway season.

Playbill On-Line: What is it like out there every night? What kinds of reactions does The Goat get from its audiences?
Mercedes Ruehl: This play evokes so many responses: gratitude, intense admiration, being intensely moved, feeling that they've gone through an intense spiritual experience, but also anger, refusal to take the trip, the sense that this is a very manipulative piece of work, that the actors and the author are playing head-games with them, some people walk out. Any one of these can dominate the audience. But what largely dominates the audience is a kind of discomfort that explodes by the end into a feeling of having gone somewhere that they can't quite compass. Then what happens is the audience just stays there after the curtain goes down and talks about it and finally the ushers have to almost pry them from the seats. So we started Tuesday talk-backs so people can actually stay and talk about it for awhile.

PBOL: The people who stay for these talk-backs, do they often express disgust at the play or are they more open minded?
MR: The people who stay — and I would say it's most of the audience — are very interested in talking about their response to it and very interested in what the author and the actors feel, what they make of it and how they prepared. One has to be a bit careful because there are certain things that can't be spoken without losing the essential enigma of the play, which the audience needs to process it correctly.

PBOL: How did you prepare for this part? How did you come to understand this character?
MR: The one problem I saw going into the play was calibrating that second act. When one has to deal with something that is extremely painful — say a death or a loss or betrayal with profound ramifications — I think that Elizabeth Kubler Ross [author of "Death and Dying"] has something when she says there are several stages to [grief]. [Stevie] begins with a kind of denial and then goes into a kind of gallows humor and finally, when the stone drops to the bottom of the well, that's when you get the final and most profound response. For me, the whole rehearsal period was working on that journey.

PBOL: But what about the goat? How do you deal with playing a woman who is betrayed by her husband for a farm animal?
MR: Certainly there are all kinds of "what ifs" in one's life and in one's imagination that one goes to, but it's funny, the more I do it, the more I don't have to go there. The more I do it, the more the goat has come to so effortlessly stand in for me for the most rare, but absolutely shattering event that can happen in human experience. I no longer have to switch to "as if"-ing; the experience is a fact in my soul.

PBOL: You've already won one Tony. Can you tell me where you keep it?
MR: I have a study in my little office in my house in East Hampton, which is where I live with my family when I'm not working here. I just keep it there. I had it in my living room for a while, then I gave it to my parents for a while, because they liked having it out in their living room. I find there's almost no place to put an award that one's quite comfortable with. These people who use Oscar as a door-stop, well, that's a little too much in the reverse. But do you put it up on the hearth? I don't think so! Then everyone has to talk about it the second they walk into the room.

PBOL: What's next for you?
MR: I'll be with The Goat until the fall. Then I've been given three plays to look at and there have been a couple of films have come over the desk. I will probably not do either one of them. It's one of the things about doing Edward's work. Writing of that caliber spoils you for any other kind of writing for awhile. But that's probably good. What I really want to do is spend a little time with my family and my son who turns five [the week of May 20]. I only see him about three and a half days a week now and that has been extremely hard.

— By Christine Ehren