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Domesticated - Off-Broadway

Jeff Goldblum and Laurie Metcalf star in Lincoln Center Theater's production of Bruce Norris' new drama.

Domesticated’s Mary Beth Peil on Moving from Opera to Musicals, Plays & The Good Wife

Domesticated’s Mary Beth Peil on Moving from Opera to Musicals, Plays & The Good Wife
Mary Beth Peil
TV and stage favorite Mary Beth Peil began her career singing at the Metropolitan Opera.

There’s a lot more to Mary Beth Peil than her elegant stage presence in musicals and maternal roles in TV's The Good Wife and Dawson’s Creek. Peil spent two decades as an opera singer, appearing at the Met and many other companies. Musicals theater was a natural transition, but Peil has also pursued challenging roles in plays, including her current stint juggling four characters in Bruce Norris’ Domesticated at Lincoln Center Theater. For her Role Call, the gorgeous and gracious Peil chose productions from every stage of her long and successful career.

Role That Inspired Me to Do Musicals
“I sang opera for 20 years, and I always felt most comfortable with directors who also worked in the theater. When I was cast in Summer and Smoke [1971, as Alma Winemiller; St. Paul Opera], Lee Hoiby and Lanford Wilson’s version of the Tennessee Williams play, it was a foreshadowing of my move into theater. I didn’t know the play or the character—I didn’t know theater at all, because I had starting singing opera professionally at 22. Alma was full of sensuality but was terrified of what would happen if she allowed herself to feel that. Like a lot of Williams women, she was on the edge of too much passion, too much appetite. This was the production that gave me the courage to leave the opera world and made me feel I had the ‘stuff’ to do theater.”

Role That Was the Most Life-Changing
“I was reluctant to tell my opera mentors I had been cast in The King and I [1985, as Anna Leonowens; Best Featured Actress Tony nomination] but a lot of them said, ‘We always knew this would happen.’ From the beginning, I felt so free from the striving for perfection one has in the opera world. In music theater, it’s not about perfection, it’s more about truth. I had heard stories that Yul Brynner could be a cruel taskmaster, but he was heaven to work with. I think he was respectful of the world I came from, and he was aware of his own mortality. We worked together in the last two years of his life, when he was very ill, and that colored everything. I learned so much about stagecraft from doing that show. I had never used a microphone in my life! It was a real life-changer.”

Role That Is the Least Like Me
“People feel very strongly about Jackie [Florrick, mother of Governor-elect Peter Florrick] in The Good Wife. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘You’re the one we love to hate.’ And that makes me so happy! It would be very hurtful if they were saying it about me, but I understand why they say it about her. Jackie is manipulative and narrow-minded, but I’ve tried to find reasons for that. She loves her son [played by Chris Noth] and those grandchildren, and the world is moving too fast for her. There’s a lot of resentment at not having been her own person, and the repression she felt from her marriage. I love the look we found for her; it’s sort of iconic, and yet not really a caricature because I see women like her everywhere.”

Roles That Were the Most Gratifying
“I want to mention all of the Sondheim musicals I’ve been fortunate enough to do: Follies [2011, as Solange LaFitte, left] and Sunday in the Park With George [2008, as Old Lady and Blair Daniels] on Broadway; Sweeney Todd at Paper Mill Playhouse [1992] and the Kennedy Center [2002] in my favorite part, the Beggar Woman; Assassins [1993, as Sara Jane Moore] at San Jose Civic Light Opera; and Desiree in A Little Night Music [1988] at a New York company that’s no longer around. Sondheim is a genius, of course, and it doesn’t get any better than having him in the rehearsal room. His ability to marry theater and music and brain and heart is so challenging and rewarding for an actor. I don’t care if you’re in the ensemble, if you have a tiny part or a huge part, it’s just so enriching.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
“My most challenging stage role—and one I would love to revisit—was in Mary Zimmerman’s M. Proust [2006, as Celeste Albaret; Chicago’s About Face Theatre]. It’s a one-woman show about Marcel Proust’s housekeeper during the last 10 years of his life. He would come home from these outrageous parties and salons refine his storytelling by acting out all the characters he met for her. She never spoke about him for 50 years, until people started writing books about his sexual perversities. At that point, she granted an interview to a Parisian journalist and spent a couple of months telling him everything she knew. The audience becomes the journalist, and in 90 minutes, I played Celeste, Proust and all the characters in the books he wrote. It was an amazing challenge.”

Role I Wish More People Had Seen
The Morini Strad [2012, as Erica, Primary Stages] was a wonderful match with my classical music training. [Willy Holtzman’s play] was the true story of a Stradivarius violin that got stolen, was never found and is still on the FBI’s top 10 list of missing pieces of art. Erica Morini was a child prodigy at the violin and grew up to become a teacher. The play was as much a story about the tragedy of this violin as it was about my character. Both this one and Celeste in M. Proust are parts that I could—and hopefully will—do again, because I will never be too old for them!”

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