The hot-and-cold-running Tracee Chimo tends to come in two degrees — either tepid church-mouse (Circle Mirror Transformation, Harvey) or scalding banshee (Bad Jews, Bachelorette) — but in The Heidi Chronicles, which opens Mar. 19 at the Music Box, she is displaying gradations in between (as Fran, Molly, Betsy and April).
Each, she says, has a different temperature. "Fran is, in the Women's Consciousness Movement, a real super-duper lesbian in fatigues, very tough — outwardly. Molly's sort of a giggly college girl, flirty and not-too-committed to anything. Betsy, who is pregnant, is a bit older and not too happy with her situation or marriage. Lastly is April, a super-powered, independent television host — a businesswoman all the way."
Mix them all together and let cool, and you have one actress' dream role(s). "One of the things on my bucket list is to play more than one character in a show eight times a week," she confesses. "I think my challenge is to figure out how each of these women moves physically — that always helps me — and then I build from there. I'm going to try to make each as different as I possibly can because that's how I get joy."
It promises to be a pretty wild ride on the pendulum, with Fran and April swinging her farthest. "I love those two characters. They're the ones who made me want to do this. I was also drawn to the feminist nature of the play, something I'm personally connected to — and the fact that Pam MacKinnon was the director clinched the deal."
As multi-roles go, this one is on a slightly more elevated plain: Joanne Camp, who originally played the Fran-Molly-Betsy-April track, earned a Tony nomination for her troubles, and that's the single theatre award that has eluded Chimo all this time.
Since she was hired to hide out in Tovah Feldshuh's attic in Irena's Vow in 2009, she has averaged an award a year — and then some: the Obie and the Drama Desk Award for Circle Mirror Transformation; Actors' Equity's Clarence Derwent Award for Bachelorette; the Lucille Lortel Award and Drama League and Outer Critics Circle nominations for Bad Jews; the Stage Scene Award LA for The Break of Noon — plus, redundantly, a 2013 Rising Star Award from the Salem State University Alumni Association.
This is, by any standard, pretty good hittin' for someone who had no intention of becoming an actress. She planned to be a dancer and choreographer, following the lead of her mother who danced and taught dance professionally in Boston.
"Dancing was something I never was really good at, but I loved it," Chimo says. "When I was 17, I was all set to go to Emerson College, then I blew my left knee out in the middle of a dance performance, doing a Bob Fosse number. I was wearing the wrong shoes, and I did a big kick. My foot went one way, and my knee went the other. I tore every ligament I had and broke a bone — onstage. Someone had to come and lift me off the stage. The doctors told me I probably would never dance again."
None of this seemed like a well-disguised blessing at the time. The dancing scholarships evaporated instantly, and the college options shrank. Chimo wound up at Salem State University where somebody, out of the blue, suggested she audition for the theatre department, reasoning "at least that way you will still be on the stage."
That's how true love found Tracee Chimo — in a play called The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, playing Miss Alma Winemiller. "It felt like flying, like I was in the air. The closest thing to flying I can think of is acting. I fell in love with it way more than I ever loved dance. I realized, 'Oh, I have to do this. I think I have to do it for the rest of my life.'"
It was a daunting, uphill ordeal to realize that dream. "I came here, and I didn't know anybody. I didn't go to a fancy school, and my parents aren't connected in the business in any way. I tended bar and waited tables at Jimmy's No. 43 on East Seventh Street — a tiny, tiny, tiny little Ukrainian pub. I walked dogs. I cut keys at a hardware store in the Village. I was a traveling cat-sitter. I had all these jobs to pay my rent, but they were flexible enough to let me audition during the day. I did that for eight years. I wanted to leave the business many times. I didn't think anybody'd hire me."
So when you ask Tracee Chimo why she came back to Broadway in installments — in a multiplicity of small roles — her answer is simple and direct: "It's what I came here to do. I love Broadway. It's my favorite job. It's the best job, I think, in the world."