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Meet the Tony Nominees: Mary Testa of ‘Oklahoma!’

Category Broadway

|by ShowTickets Editors |

Testa talks finding the roots of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic

Aunt Eller has no time for your nonsense. Neither does Mary Testa, who sweeps new life into the character in Broadway’s completely reimagined Oklahoma! Eller is the voice of wisdom in this new territory, offering homespun advice to her niece, Laurey, and their fellow country folk. The performance received raves from critics and audiences alike, earning her a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Damon Daunno (Curly) and Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

Damon Daunno (Curly) and Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) in ‘Oklahoma!’ (Photo: Little Fang Photo)

The production began with students at Hudson Valley’s Bard College in 2007. In 2015, Director Daniel Fish restaged it using professional actors. That’s when Testa got involved. After lengthy discussions about commercial viability, it made its way to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse. Now, the critically acclaimed production has settled into Broadway’s Circle in the Square, where this two-time Tony nominee is packing heat and pulling no punches eight times a week.

Testa is best known for her comedic work (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Xanadu, On The Town), but she is no stranger to exploring serious territory. As Aunt Eller, she unearths the darkness that lies beneath her character and the original 1943 script.

Testa wasn’t overly familiar with Rodgers & Hammerstein original, and didn’t have any preconceived notions when rehearsals began. “I didn’t think about what it should or shouldn’t be,” she said in a recent phone interview shortly after opening night. “I just know that Daniel really mines the truth, and didn’t want any big-time accents. We’re going by the script, which is written in an accent – and we are being totally faithful to that – but he really wanted the truth and simplicity in each scene. He’s not an intrusive director when it comes to the actor’s process.” 

Testa’s process of concentration has been different this time around, particularly because the house lights are on for most of the show. “The whole idea is that we’re all in this together. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also challenging given the state of audiences.”

Testa isn’t shy about offering her opinion on theater etiquette. “Why must you move and eat and drink and make noise? I just don’t get it! It’s the problem with cell phones and society in general. People aren’t connected to anyone, and it’s not about community.” Still, she finds joy in the many fans that have embraced this reinvented classic. “People are shocked by the gunshots and sometimes horrified by the ending, but as a performer, I love it when audience members are so compelled and moved. When everybody is rapt, and everyone is into it, it’s pretty glorious.”

Fish’s version often suggests the current state of American politics, presenting themes of nationalism, bullying and gun violence. Even Aunt Eller isn’t an innocent bystander here, particularly when it comes to the treatment of Jud Fry, an outcast ranch hand who lives in the farm’s smokehouse and pines for Laurey.

“She’s supportive of Jud until a bunch of things cause a red flag for her. Then she’s not. Part of what is examined in this production is that you’re an insider until you’re not,” says Testa. “Laurey tells Eller that Jud ‘makes her shiver.’ At first, Eller wonders what’s wrong with Laurey, but the more she sees, the more she doesn’t like. As an actor, I have a backstory that Aunt Eller has gone into the smokehouse where Jud lives when he isn’t there. That’s how I discover stuff and realize that he no longer should be trusted.”

Testa knows that this contemporary spin isn’t the Oklahoma! from yesteryear. “It’s like lifting the rock and seeing all the stuff. This production just illuminates it. These scenes have always been there. Your grandparents’ Oklahoma! had the same themes but they were just glossed over.” Her friend, Ted Chapin, is the President and Chief Creative Officer for the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein. “Ted told me that in most productions, they race through the script and go straight to the production numbers. This one doesn’t do that.” She added that Chapin has had input and has been supportive of this new version all along.

Does the veteran actor impart the same brand of Aunt Eller insight backstage and offstage? Testa coyly laughed before responding. “You know, I’m the type of person who says things that everybody’s thinking but are afraid to say. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know my way around show business and think that I can be helpful to younger people. I think it’s just the make-up of who I am. I tend to be a leader. In many instances, people do come to me for advice.”

But listen up, folks: When you visit Aunt Eller on this ranch, show some respect to the lady and her fellow territory folk at Circle in the Square by keeping your cell phones off.  Thank ya, kindly.

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in May 2019.

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine.

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