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Broadway Q&A: Joan Allen of 'The Waverly Gallery'

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |


The screen and stage mainstay reveals what got her on her path to performing

A Tony winner and three-time Oscar nominee, Joan Allen is currently starring on Broadway in The Waverly Gallery, one of several star-filled plays – among them To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lifespan of a Fact – attracting buzz this season. The richly moving and hilarious play’s dream team cast also includes Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera and David Cromer. Written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Lila Neugebauer, The Waverly Gallery was a Pulitzer Prize finalist when it debuted in 2001. Allen plays Ellen, the daughter of a feisty mom (Elaine May) whose memory is declining due to Alzheimer’s. The show has received rave reviews for being deeply poignant and also very funny. Allen has starred in countless films and TV shows, including The Ice Storm, the Bourne films, A Good Marriage, The Notebook, Peggy Sue Got Married, Ethan Frome, The Upside of Anger, The Family, The Killing, Luck, Georgia O’Keefe, The Mists of Avalon and many more. 

Joan Allen stars in ‘The Waverly Gallery’ on Broadway (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Joan Allen stars in ‘The Waverly Gallery’ on Broadway (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

When did you know you had to perform?  
Joan Allen:
I probably knew when I was in fourth grade. We had an annual spring program with a Hawaiian theme. I grew up in this small town in Northern Illinois. We made grass skirts out of crepe paper, and I was chosen to be the lead hula dancer in a little show for our parents. When I got into high school I thought I wanted to be a cheerleader, because I was one in middle school. But I did not make the high school cheerleading squad. Then, I was walking past a board by the theater with a posting that they were auditioning for the one-act play Once Upon a Playground. I decided to audition and was cast. I thought, “This is it.” I started doing plays in high school. 

When did you first come to New York? 
Joan Allen
: I was 28. I did a play with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago called And The Nightingale Sang. The play was brought to New York, and I had never even been here. It was amazing. During all of my twenties I had been doing theater in Chicago. The play was well-received and it was an incredible experience. (Allen won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards for her performance.)

What went through your mind when you heard about The Waverly Gallery and were considering the role? 
Joan Allen
: I’m pretty picky about plays. And it’s not so common to have such a beautiful, real-life, contemporary piece. I met with (playwright) Kenny Lonergan and (director) Lila Neugebauer. We had an hour-and-a-half coffee session. They got to meet me. And I got to meet them, and talk about the play, and my own experience with my mother’s dementia.

What do you like about your character Ellen? 
Joan Allen
: I love her sense of humor, which is pretty dry. I am also very touched by the clues that are dropped about Gladys and Ellen’s relationship. They are very different people, and not necessarily in a soulmate mother/daughter relationship. Even with her current state of health, I believe Gladys is still is a dynamic force. And it is amazing that once a week for the past 20 years, Ellen has had a family dinner were she cooks and brings her mother to it. I think of that loyalty and love.  

Did dealing with your mother’s dementia help you connect more deeply with the play?
Joan Allen:
I saw a lot of people in various states of Alzheimer’s and dementia for a couple of years, and that really helped educate me. I’m much more familiar with it. And I was very grateful about that going into it. My mother’s dementia was very different from Gladys’s. My mom’s was very late onset. She lived to be almost 97. She had been very hard of hearing, like Gladys, which was sad and frustrating for her for several years. But her cognition was good. But when she broke, it was overnight. The next day she was violent, paranoid and had to be sedated. It was a different experience. Gladys’s dementia is more gradual.

What do you love to do when you are not working?
Joan Allen
: For the past two years, I have had a home in Connecticut. I also have an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and it’s an hour door-to-door with no traffic. My favorite thing is to hang out at my house, be on my beautiful property, prune bushes, take a long walk, build a fire and read. I’m a also a huge walker. I love to walk three to four miles a day if I can. I have to say I’m very, very low key.

Is there a walk you love in New York City? 
Joan Allen
: I love Riverside Park. It’s right along the Hudson. I just love going into the park. 

Many people don’t realize how important a role the director plays when developing your character. How integral was director Lila Neugebauer for you?
Joan Allen
: I want to thank Lila for being an incredible director and helping me find this character and for having such good judgment, taste and really holding my hand to craft this role. She really helped me. Lila stressed that Ellen is trying to stay above it all and problem-solve constantly. I can’t fix Ellen’s brain, but I can cook dinner. Having gone through this with my own mother, you don’t sit in the sorrow all that much. 

An important thing that we found with Ellen is that she is a doer. She is setting the table, straightening her mother’s dress, taking her to the ear doctor. At the end of the play I actually feel kind of gratified. There are people out there who have been in this position. And you have given them a gift of feeling less alone. A nod to understand that this is really tough. As I leave the theater people call out to me ‘I’m going through this right now with my mother. Thank you so much for raising awareness.’
***
For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in November 2018.

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