Jayne Houdyshell is ecumenical, at least on stage. Born and raised as a Congregationalist, she has portrayed a Jewish mother several times and is now playing an Irish Catholic mother in the play that won this year’s Tony Award for Best Play and earned her a Tony for Best Supporting Actress. “The Humans,” written by Stephen Karam, has just transferred to a larger Broadway house for the upcoming theater season.
In “The Humans,” Ms. Houdyshell combines the humor and sarcasm typical of Irish Catholic mothers with the resentment, disappointment and shame worthy of any character in an O’Neill tragedy. Her character, Deidre Blake, and her husband drive from Scranton, Penn., to New York City to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with a daughter and her boyfriend living in a basement apartment near the World Trade Center. They bring along another daughter, dealing with a romantic break-up, as well as Deidre’s senile mother-in-law. The first half-hour of the story is hilarious, with sarcasm and putdowns mixed in with occasional expressions of family affection—how Irish is that? But as the play continues, the audience is led into a much darker world, ending in something like despair.
Ms. Houdyshell has played everyone from a former chorus girl facing her so-called golden years to an 11-year-old child. She won a 2013 Drama Desk Award for her “exceptionally versatile and distinct performances” in Broadway and Off Broadway productions. In the many years she spent in regional theater, she appeared in over 200 roles, including Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”, Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and the frustrated Italian widow Serafina in “The Rose Tattoo.”
Though Ms. Houdyshell, 62, is highly respected in the theater community, she is not exactly a household name. She recently talked to me about her life as a farm girl from Topeka, Kan., who finally become a Broadway star. It is an inspiring tale of determination and hard work over several decades.
Ms. Houdyshell began her theatrical career in high school at the age of 14 in the roles of a Jewish mother in “Enter Laughing” and a middle-aged psychic in “Blithe Spirit.” From there she studied at the Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., and acted professionally at the Meadow Brook Theater there. “In the early ’70s, to be a theater actor and be able to work steadily was really a great goal,” she says, “and the regional theater scene provided opportunities with a wide range of plays with a wide range of roles. So it made sense to me to work regionally.” She was not particularly concerned that she wasn’t working on Broadway: “I didn’t aspire to that at that point really. Because I really wanted to work. I didn’t want to wait tables and pray for a break.” And so she traveled the country for 27 years, playing hundreds of roles.
Ms. Houdyshell moved to New York at the age of 27 and had an apartment from then on, but she kept leaving town to do regional theater. “It wasn’t until around the late 1990s that I decided to stop doing that,” she says. “I had reached the point where I really wanted to know what it was like working on new plays and being able to originate a role. At that point in time almost all the new work was coming out of New York. So it just made sense that I made that shift to just focus on working in and around New York.”
Have you noticed that she seems to base her life decisions on what “makes sense” at the time? Not exactly the story of a starving artist who prefers to be daring in her career. And the shift to New York did pay off, but not right away. Regional theaters kept offering her work, but in the theater capital “nobody knew who I was.”
Ms. Houdyshell’s big break was a new experimental drama called “Well,” which went on to win numerous awards, including her first nomination for a Tony in 2006. However, that didn’t come easily. Ms. Houdyshell says that it took four and a half years to get the play to Broadway. She played the mother of Lisa Kron, who wrote “Well” as what first seems to be a one-woman autobiographical play. But as Ms. Kron tries to tell the story of her life, her mother, seated in a La-Z-Boy on the side of the stage, regularly interrupts. The character is described in the stage directions as “late sixties/early seventies, Midwestern housewife, lethargic and in pain, yet surprisingly vibrant. Warm and funny.” The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood praised Ms. Houdyshell’s “flawless authenticity,” calling the performance “as devoid of discernible artifice as any performance I've ever seen onstage.”
Her second Tony nomination came in a 2012 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” in which she played a former chorus girl recalling her struggles trying to make it big, in the song “Broadway Baby.” She has appeared in other Broadway musicals including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Wicked.”
Just a year ago, Ms. Houdyshell appeared in Larry David’s Broadway comedy “Fish in the Dark” as a Jewish mother fighting with her relatives over the last will and testament of her deceased husband. (Again, notice how many mothers she has played over the years.) The play got mediocre reviews but Ms. Houdyshell again got good notices, with the Newark Star-Ledger critic Ronni Reichpraising her “scene-stealing.” David, the play’s writer and star, remarked, “She was perfect in the part. And she’s not even Jewish.”
Ms. Houdyshell has made the occasional foray into movies, appearing in “Garden State” and “Changing Lanes.” But that is not her dream. “I am always grateful for [the film work] when it comes my way,” she says. “But I don’t actively pursue it. I feel that the theater really is my medium. . . . As an industry, the theater embraces actors like myself more readily than the television or film industry does.”
At the end of the interview, I asked Ms. Houdyshell if she would stay with “The Humans” as it moves to a larger theater. She answered, “Absolutely. We’re all staying with the play. You can’t break this family up.” When I commented that “breaking up the family would not be very Irish Catholic of you,” she agreed.
And I predict that Ms. Houdyshell will win more awards. Jayne Houdyshell presents women, especially mothers, as complex persons with a charm that gets everyone’s attention.