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For Jennifer Mendenhall, A Rewarding Stage in Life

Motherhood Taught Actress Pivotal Lesson

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page N01

Jennifer Mendenhall, longtime member of the Woolly Mammoth acting company, current two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee (and winner back in 1989) and imminent star of Sophocles' "Electra" at MetroStage (performances begin this week), is ready to come clean.

She pours herself a cup of hot tea in her Hyattsville kitchen and sits down. "I have a bit of a reputation," Mendenhall says with a mischievous smile. She lifts her steaming mug pointedly. It has little dogs and the B-word printed all over it. "Howard Shalwitz gave me this mug," she reports, referring to Woolly's artistic director.

Mendenhall, who won a Hayes award in 1989, at her Hyattsville home. Her portrait on the wall is from 20 years ago. (Bill O'leary -- The Washingon Post)

Mendenhall, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in England (she still has the accent that turns "matter" into "mattah"), hasn't exactly changed the subject, which is the extraordinary year she had last year. She played a needy sexpot in "Cooking With Elvis" for Woolly Mammoth, then torched the stage in several languages as Mahala, the Persian woman who spews disturbing cross-cultural invective in the Afghanistan sections of Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul" (a Woolly co-production with Theater J). That was followed by the dark comedy "Lenny and Lou," a keynote of which was the memorably uproarious sex scene executed by Mendenhall and Shalwitz, and "Grace," with Mendenhall playing a Christian fundamentalist from Minnesota. Using a tabloid-style tragedy as its hub, "Grace" thoughtfully explored matters of faith; Craig Wright, working on a commission from Woolly, wrote the part with Mendenhall in mind.

Wright describes her work in "Grace" as "luminous," and says, "That character could have ended up as a type -- a lot more dopey and credulous." But he believes that thanks to Mendenhall's intelligent approach, "the character ended up having a depth of feeling and an absence of judgment" that helped move the play beyond a religious polemic.

That performance earned Mendenhall a Hayes nomination in the lead actress category; she is also nominated for her supporting work in "Lenny and Lou." (The ceremony will take place May 9 at the Warner Theatre.) So it was a striking year, and it seemed to mark Mendenhall's full reemergence on the theatrical scene after a long period of intermittent engagements as she and husband Michael Kramer, a busy actor and stage manager, started a family.

"But see," she says, considering just how her story ought to be told -- and she's ready for this, with three binders of memorabilia from her professional life stacked on the kitchen table -- "now I have to back up."

Mendenhall, who declines to reveal her age, rewinds to 1996 and the difficult birth she had with her first child, Henry. She had worked during the pregnancy, acting in a two-character production of "Fires in the Mirror" in Pittsburgh, then directing Christi Stewart-Brown's "Morticians in Love" in New York; while directing, she went into labor early. The experience was hard on mother and child; Henry spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (though he is healthy enough these days that he takes karate four times a week).

So when Mendenhall became pregnant with her daughter, Vivian, she undertook six weeks of bed rest and hired an uncertified midwife, flouting Maryland state law.

She muses, "Maybe Vivian's gift to me, as I jumped off the cliff and said, 'I'm going to do something completely illegal, and if something goes wrong we'll end up at Prince George's General and they'll treat me like a murderer' -- the gift that she gave me was this sense of, okay, I'm going to spend the next 20 years allowing things, and listening, and receiving, and trying not to be quite so quick to move forward into action. . . . That all has to do with letting things go."

Things such as a bench, say, placed two inches off its mark on the stage, forcing her to play a scene in an awkward position -- pushed forward, tottering, off-balance. "So I'd either fix it, which wasn't my job -- bad Jen," she scolds herself for this pettiness, "or I wouldn't fix it, and I'd be so upset because I couldn't let go of it because it was wrong."

She giggles, then whispers, as if confiding a secret: "This is why I have a reputation for being difficult." And she cackles like a juvenile delinquent. (Which, it turns out, she was, spending her final two high school years in a Swiss boarding school because "I was kind of asked not to return" to her boarding school in England.)

Michael Russotto, Mendenhall's longtime friend, fellow actor, and her director in the upcoming "Electra," says, "I've never seen her explode. But I have seen her get intensely abrupt with people when she feels she's not getting something she needs to do her job."

Says Mendenhall, "I made Howard Shalwitz so angry one time during technical rehearsals that he pulled me off the stage and dragged me into the hallway. And he was trembling from head to foot, and he said, 'Whatever you're doing, you have to stop it, because you're ruining it for everyone.' And that was really scary, because he doesn't like to confront people."

Mendenhall tells another story on herself, of being part of the company that did Ari Roth's "Born Guilty" and "Peter and the Wolf" in rep at Theater J a few years back. "Born Guilty" was a finished play with a disciplinarian director, John Vreeke, at the helm. "Peter and the Wolf" was a related work-in-process, with Peg Denithorne directing in a more exploratory fashion -- a style that made Mendenhall nervous.

She says, "And I gave Peg a really hard time."

"Very much so," Denithorne confirms. (Roth says the tension was so thick in the rehearsal room that he split a molar chewing on a pen cap.) Denithorne says, "Jen is high-strung, and some of that is a key to her talent. She has such a range available to her." But Mendenhall's need for stern directorial guidance suggests this to Denithorne: "She didn't trust herself enough. So maybe it was a little growing-up process."

Mendenhall says, "It's my job to fit in with the ethic of the play, of the production. But it's hard for me to do that unless I can trust that the director really knows what they're doing and is really on top of everything. Sometimes because they're not doing it the way I think it should be done, I don't realize how on top of it they are, actually. It's just different."

When did she figure that out?

"Just now," she says, looking slightly pained. "I'm not kidding." She laughs. "Welcome to my life. It's like a constant therapy session where you're sort of going, 'Oh! Ohhhh!' And you want to call 10 people and say, 'I'm so sorry!' "

Making a Splash

After growing up in England and finishing at the Swiss boarding school, Mendenhall returned to the United States to attend the University of Virginia, where her brother, three years older, was studying. She came to be with him: "I didn't care where I went to school," she says. She majored in French and German until acting proved irresistible, and ended up with a double major in French and theater. Upon graduating, these were the words her drama professor gave the aspiring actress: "You have two strikes against you. You're short. And you have an accent."

She moved to Washington in 1984, joined the acting conservatory at Studio Theatre, began working pretty rapidly, made a splash starring in "Savage in Limbo" with Shalwitz ("We had a great kissing-snogging scene," she recalls) and was invited to join the Woolly acting company. Before the 1980s were done, Mendenhall was nominated twice for Hayes Awards as a leading actress, winning for her haunting turn as the impressionable young girl in Wallace Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon."

From then on Jennifer Mendenhall was a staple of Washington theater, getting top roles at Woolly, offering stellar supporting turns at the Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage, seeming to work everywhere, trying everything -- bawdy plays, comedies of manners, realistic dramas. It felt great going from crazy, raucous plays in shoestring theaters to sharing the stage with Dixie Carter in Oscar Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance" at the Shakespeare Theatre. And then . . . well . . .

"I got pregnant," she says, exploding with laughter.

The adjustments to parenthood weren't always easy. At one point she organized a "theater mothers" support group, rattling off the names of nearly a dozen performers in the area who were going through the same thing. For a long time she and Kramer agreed not to work at the same time, feeling that at least one of them ought to be home to tuck the children in at night. But Kramer says, "At some point you have to say to your kids, 'This is what we do.' "

The parental balancing act can be doubly tough on theatrical couples, who work, for money that isn't great, from roughly 6 p.m. until midnight or later. (Kramer points out the difficulty of finding day-care coverage for those hours.)

Mendenhall says, "One of the things we've always been really clear about is if one of us gets a project that is a meaningful, worthwhile, soul-affirming project, let's figure out the finances so that person can do that project."

She likes to stick to a strict chronology of how those special projects started flowing to her again, and highlights a moment during the "Born Guilty/Peter and the Wolf" rep when she said out loud that she'd like to connect with some of the newer, younger artists working around town.

"I really had been out of it for two or three years," she says. "Even before that, I had Henry, and I was working again, but I wasn't really in the loop."

Pretty quickly, she got a call asking if she could vocal-coach for "The Learned Ladies" with the Theatre Alliance. That led to a role for her in the company's raw, much-admired production of Naomi Wallace's "Slaughter City."

"One of the things that was so incredible about that production," she says, "was seeing how powerful an experience it was when the full force of my energy was going in a completely positive direction. And it wasn't hanging up, there were no bits catching, it was all just -- " She makes the whooshing sound of a rocket taking off.

After that she reconnected with Shalwitz and Woolly for "The Day Room," and then came the kaleidoscope of last year's roles. Her versatility has always been impressive and, against her drama teacher's expectations, part of it stems from her facility with accents. As Shalwitz points out, "She does accents to begin with, because she wasn't raised here. Her American accent is brilliant. As is her Afghani accent."

Listen to Mendenhall reading "The River," a novel she's recording on disc. (She and Kramer have a tiny but well-equipped studio in the basement; recorded book gigs are easily more lucrative than acting.) Her voice takes on the cadence and inflections of someone delivering the news for the BBC World Service -- that is, until the dialogue begins. Then Mendenhall effortlessly renders everyone from hoarse old men to naive young girls.

Says Wright: "She's a great technician. I write a lot of plays set in Minnesota, and actors always want to do some stupid Midwestern accent." Mendenhall, on the other hand, made it real.

Romantic bias aside, Kramer sounds right in his assessment that it takes rare skill to master the kind of linguistic challenges presented by Mahala in "Homebody" (which, by the way, marked the first time Kramer and Mendenhall had shared a stage in 19 years). Most actresses, he suggests, "would have spent half their time learning the lines. Learning the syllables."

What Mendenhall learned from that performance is what director Vreeke advised: Let go. "I don't think I managed to do that," she says, "until my voice teacher came to see the play and said she hated everything I did."

What follows is an example of the fine-tuning available to the better artists.

"And I said, 'Oh! Why?' She said, 'Your eyes were dead, and you were just screaming and flailing.' I wasn't upset; I was intrigued. I was curious. So I called Howard and I said, 'You've seen this, what do you think?' I called [actress] Michelle Shupe, because she studies with the same teacher. I said, 'What do you think she's responding to?' And I ran around and burrowed and tried to pull things out into the light, and I finally realized that in the moment before that scene I was basically going like" -- she furrows her brow, scowls like Medea getting bad news, clenches her entire body, then screams, "Go!"

"So much expression," she explains. "No time to receive."

This is the theme she returns to again and again, onstage and off. It's the awareness and maturity that she says recently allowed her to gently coax a long-buried family tragedy into the light, the death in infancy, due to hyaline membrane disease, of her younger brother, Robert. The family's reckoning with that event "couldn't have happened 10 years ago," she says, due to hardened attitudes all around, and most certainly from her until she gingerly started asking questions. "But all of a sudden this big painful thing that had sat at the heart of our family was open."

Did that revelation about being receptive in "Homebody" really make a difference in her performance? She offers this as proof: "I never went up on a line after that, those last two weeks. I always knew exactly where I was. Before that, I was terrified of going up, and I did go up."

'Nothing She Can't Do'

This is what Howard Shalwitz says of Mendenhall's second act: "She's more easygoing and relaxed and has a better time, and at the same time is able to access an infinite variety of colors. I think she's a different actress now. . . . She's always had enormous emotional depth, but now in plays like 'Grace' and 'Homebody/Kabul' she can really tear your heart out. I just feel like there's nothing she can't do."

Even the Greeks? "Electra" will test her.

Mendenhall says, "You know, I'm Bottom," referring to the "Midsummer Night's Dream" character who thinks he can play all the roles in the amateur production. "You should be able to go from one style to another. You should be able to look like this, and then look like that. And I loved it -- loved it -- when people would come and say, 'I didn't know it was you until halfway through the first act.' "

The Hayes Award she won 16 years ago sits in an out-of-the-way spot in her basement, and she says what many actors say about trophies -- that it's impossible to single out performances. "It's completely ridiculous," she declares, "and not doable."

But she adds, "It's heady to get that kind of attention in that format. And I speak from 20 years of experience, which is very different than if I was 26 and receiving my first nomination. But my feeling is the only reason I would want to win one is to have the opportunity to stand up there and say, 'Look at this. Look at us. Look at this place.' " It's all said with pride for the community that has welcomed her back.

So Jennifer Mendenhall will go to the Hayes Awards next month, and she'll have fun.

"Damn right," she affirms. "I'm going to buy a nice dress, too."

After all, doing it halfway wouldn't feel right.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company