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Natural Affection - Off-Broadway

John Pankow and Kathryn Erbe headline the off-Broadway revival of William Inge's rarely produced play.

Natural Affection's Kathryn Erbe on Playing Strong Women, from Streetcar to Law & Order

Natural Affection's Kathryn Erbe on Playing Strong Women, from Streetcar to Law & Order
Kathryn Erbe
Kathryn Erbe recalls five memorable stage roles and a decade-long run in 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent.'

Law & Order fans remember Kathryn Erbe as unflappable detective Alexandra Eames on the Criminal Intent franchise, but the Massachusetts-born actress is also a Tony-nominated stage vet and ensemble member at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. In the past 18 months alone, Erbe has taken on demanding roles in two off-Broadway premieres (Yosemite and Checkers), and she’s currently breathing new life into William Inge’s 1963 family drama Natural Affection, which opens on September 26 at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, produced by The Actors Company Theatre. The warm and self-effacing Erbe offered a career overview in her Role Call.

Role That Was the Most Surprising
“I’m kind of embarrassed to say that when I first re-read A Streetcar Named Desire [1997, Steppenwolf Theatre], I didn’t feel I could relate to Stella. Why would this woman stay with this guy? But my then-husband [director Terry Kinney] knows me well, and once we started, I fell in love with Stella and Stanley and Tennessee Williams. It was mind-blowing, particularly as I grasped his deep respect for humanity in all its forms, the lowest of the low in particular. Every role I play teaches me something, and that one informed so much of the work I did afterward. Gary Sinise [Stanley] is such a giving, supportive person, and it was a joy to go to the places Stella and Stanley went with him. These two people were absolute soul mates. It was just an epic, tragic love story.”

Role That Was the Most Demanding
“It never occurred to me that Law & Order: Criminal Intent [2001-2011, as Detective Alexandra Eames] would last so long. Being on a major network television show is like long-distance running: You have to pace yourself and maintain your energy level and your morale. There’s the role you’re playing on the show, and there’s also your behind-the-scenes responsibility to the crew, the guest actors and the fans—not to mention your own life as a mom. It was a joy to play a character who always knew what to say and do, who was strong and brave in the world of men and in the face of evil people. [Co-starring with Vincent D’Onofrio] was like a marriage, and what I hope will be a lifelong friendship. I admire his talent, his work ethic and the standards he set for himself. We had highs and lows, and I’m extremely proud that we made it out the other end as a team. It was an honor to be in the trenches with him.”

Role That Got Me Back On Stage
“After Law & Order, I was eager to get back to the theater, and when Rattlestick sent me Yosemite [2012, as Julie] by Daniel Talbott, I read the play sort of ravenously. As usual, I thought ‘There’s no way I can play this part.’ She was a ferocious mother who is at the end of the line—bankrupt emotionally and in every other way—with three beautiful children and one dead child. I hadn’t done a play in 15 years, and I was terrified of going on this harrowing emotional journey, but it was a labor of love. That’s true of every play I’ve done, either for the story or the character. Yosemite opened doors for me in the New York theater community in amazing ways. There’s a whole world of fearless young theater makers here who put shows together on a shoestring budget and with gigantic hearts.”

Role That Is the Least Like Me
“The woman I’m playing now, Sue in Natural Affection, is all the things I never allow myself to be: She’s in control, and she will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. William Inge had read an article about a woman who rejects her son, and the son commits a senseless act of violence after being released from a work farm. Inge was known for rural dramas like Picnic, but this play was his response to stories about how urban youth of the early ’60s were acting out. The play wasn’t well received 50 years ago, but it’s fascinating and terrifying. I’m having to give myself permission to do things in front of an audience that I should not do. But I also get to be thrown down on a bed by an incredibly handsome 35-year-old who is built like a superhero. That’s awesome!”

Role I Wish I Could Have Played Longer
“I loved playing Mary in The Speed of Darkness [1991, Best Featured Actress Tony nomination] by the late Steve Tesich. My character was the daughter of a Vietnam vet, played by Len Cariou, who has become a successful businessman in a small town. Robert Sean Leonard played my high school boyfriend, and we had to be the ‘parents’ of a bag of flour. It gets smashed at the end by Len after one of his platoon members, now homeless and deeply disturbed, reappears. Stephen Lang played the part, and I will never forget sitting on stage, talking with him on the phone as he was standing behind me. It was a magical moment—the first time I felt I was living my dream as an actor. The play opened during the Gulf War, and nobody wanted to see a war story then. It had been closed a long time when I got the Tony nomination, and I was shocked! Irene Worth won, but I was thrilled to be in that company.”

Role I Resisted, Then Fell in Love With
“It took enormous courage for [ex-husband] Terry [Kinney] to send me Checkers [2012, as Pat Nixon]. I never liked him to boss me around [as a director] when we were married, so it wouldn’t have occurred to me that we could work together after we were divorced. Reading it, I felt like I was in a dream. Doug McGrath is such a throwback. ‘Elegant’ is the word that comes to mind—I adore the way he turns a phrase. I called Terry and said, ‘I don’t relate to this woman, but if you really think I can do it, I will trust you.’ Once we started, I was shocked by how deeply I understood Pat Nixon and how close she was to the women I descended from in terms of what they expect from themselves, how they comport themselves and their duty to their men. The key for me was a long monologue in which she tells Nixon why she believes in him when he is doubting himself. I absolutely fell in love with her and with Doug’s beautiful play.”

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