Interview with The Waverly Gallery star Joan Allen

Joan Allen

Joan Allen is a Tony Award winner and a three-time Academy Award nominee, currently gracing the Golden Theatre stage in the Broadway premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery... possibly the most moving play of the Broadway season so far. Perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for "Manchester by the Sea" and Oscar-nominated screenplays for "Gangs of New York" and "You Can Count on Me," Kenneth Lonergan's most deeply personal work is arguably this memory play, inspired by his own relationship with his grandmother growing up and how his family coped with the crisis, as she gradually slipped into the grasps of dementia. Having been first staged off-Broadway in 2000 (becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001), the Broadway mounting was long overdue and a top calibre cast was assembled to breathe new life into this heartwrenching tale. Ms. Allen plays Ellen Fine, the daughter of Waverly Gallery owner Gladys Green (portrayed sublimely by Elaine May), whilst Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges plays Ellen's son (and Gladys' grandson) Daniel. Supporting them are Tony Award-winning director David Cromer (as Ellen's husband, Howard) and Tony Award nominee Michael Cera (as hopeless, aspiring artist, Don Bowman).

The onstage chemistry between this fine cast of actors is so natural, at times you feel like you're watching a documentary and yet you become so fully and emotionally invested in the characters that, by the play's conclusion, you feel like you've become a family member yourself, sharing in their loss. Dementia is such a universally cruel disease and seeing it depicted on a Broadway stage unites all of us theatregoers, in a sense, whose lives have been affected by it.

Ms. Allen burst onto the Broadway scene in the fall of 1987 in the Broadway premiere of Lanford Wilson's Burn This (winning a Tony Award in 1988 for her performance as Anna Mann) and she made a lasting (Tony-nominated) impression with her portrayal of Heidi Holland in the 1989 Broadway premiere of The Heidi Chronicles. Her turn as Katharine Keenan in 2009 's Impressionism marked the last time we saw her on the Broadway stage until now. Away from the theatre, film fans will recognise her from Oscar-nominated appearances in "The Contender," "The Crucible," and "Nixon," and notable turns in movies such as "Face/Off," "Pleasantville," "Room," and the "Bourne" franchise (as Pam Landy).

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ms. Allen and get her thoughts on her return to the Great White Way, the impact of dementia on her own life, working with Kenneth Lonergan and the upcoming first-ever Broadway revival of Lanford Wilson's Burn This...

Joan Allen in The Waverly Gallery
(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

It had been a little under a decade since we last saw you on the Great White Way, during which time you’ve been very busy in the worlds of film and television. What was it in particular about this play that enticed you back to Broadway?

It's beautifully written. My family went through the experience of my mother's dementia--the play rang so true to me. And I was very excited by the prospect of working with Elaine May (I've admired her for many years), as well as with the entire creative team/fellow actors.

Personally, it was an extremely moving play for me to watch because Daniel’s journey with his grandmother mirrored my own in so many ways. My Grandma lived with Alzheimer’s for many years and finally passed away this time last year. All the nuances in Elaine’s performance were instantly familiar to me and I was wondering if you have any similar experiences in your own life that you were able to draw from in preparation for the role of Ellen?

My own mother's dementia was very different from the character of Gladys--my mom's was very sudden and sadly paranoid/violent, while Gladys' is gradual and hard to pin down. However, I spent a great deal of time at my mother's assisted living facility and observed and interacted with many people in various stages of the disease--those experiences definitely helped me to work on this play.   

In terms of working with Kenneth Lonergan, does it make a difference as an actor working closely with a playwright when the material is so deeply personal to him?

For me, it totally did. I relished and was grateful for the stories he told of his own family. They personalized the play for me and helped me to flesh out/work on the character of Ellen.  

You won a Tony Award in 1988 for originating the role of Anna Mann in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This on Broadway. How excited are you about the first-ever Broadway revival this coming spring and would you have any words of wisdom or encouragement for Keri Russell, who will be reviving the role of Anna?

I'll be there to see Keri and cheer her on! She's a lovely actor and even lovelier human being (I played her mom in a film once several years ago). I hope she has a wonderful time working on the play.

What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of The Waverly Gallery so far and in what ways do you feel the production is rewarding for theatregoers?

Most rewarding to me has been (and continues to be) the experience of working with Elaine May, Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera, David Cromer, Lila Neugebauer, and Kenneth Lonergan--all such gifted, creative people.  Also, having audience members talk to me after the show and tell me their personal stories of struggling with a family member in the throes of Alzheimers has been very moving.  It's very meaningful and important to me to be part of telling a story that touches and helps people.

Joan Allen & Elaine May in The Waverly Gallery
(Photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

The Waverly Gallery Tickets are available now for performances through to January 27, 2019.