Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of J.B. Priestley’s poignant family drama Time and the Conways, at the American Airlines Theatre from September 14, brings Elizabeth McGovern back to the Broadway stage after an absence of 25 years. She last appeared here as Ophelia in Roundabout’s 1992 revival of Hamlet.
“I thought it was a refreshing idea to do something that is in the canon but not done all the time,” says McGovern, who received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her performance on the British TV series Downton Abbey. “I wasn’t familiar with the play and thought it would be an interesting discovery for me and an audience.” Indeed, although Priestley’s 1937 work has been produced sporadically over the decades, it has not been seen on Broadway since its premiere in 1938. It has also been overshadowed by the English playwright’s more famous later work, the metaphysical whodunit An Inspector Calls, which received a bravura revival on Broadway in 1994.
“I just really loved Time and the Conways,” McGovern continues. “It’s a wonderful cross section of relationships and family life that is both humorous and sad.” In the play’s first act, set in a 1919 English provincial home, McGovern, playing Mrs. Conway, presides over a bright and promising family of six as they celebrate a daughter’s 21st birthday. In the next act, Priestley fast-forwards the action 19 years, portraying the family in much bleaker colors, only to go back in time again for the final segment of the play — an audacious move for a seemingly conventional drama of the period.
“Priestley is looking at the family through two prisms. One is a point in time in which they are all very positive, full of hope, and looking ahead to a bright future, and then he flips that and you see a dark side in which they all feel very hopeless and disappointed,” McGovern explains. “But I feel that the way that time goes back and forth in the play, what he is suggesting is that life and family relationships are an amalgam of both light and dark, and that the family will flip between both realities. Both are equally relevant and true to family life.”
Initially it may seem that all Priestley has done is just switch the second act around with the third, but it is actually a masterful device that provides us a rich and multilayered view of the Conway family and also offers a philosophy for how to embrace life in its totality. As a character in the play explains, “Time doesn’t destroy anything. It merely moves us on — in this life — from one peephole to the next. … Half our trouble now is because we think Time’s ticking our lives away.” He adds, “That’s why we snatch and grab and hurt each other.” In this play (as well as in An Inspector Calls), Priestley was greatly influenced by the theory of serialism, a nonlinear concept of time proposed in 1927 by British aeronautical engineer and philosopher J.W. Dunne. It suggests that all moments in time exist simultaneously and it is only human perception that divides it into past, present, and future. “It doesn’t feel depressing ,” offers McGovern. “I feel that the play suggests that the wise person is the one who accepts that life is a tapestry of both light and dark experiences, processing disappointment and joy at the same time.”
From McGovern’s perspective, the play also provides her with a fascinating character to play. “Mrs. Conway is full of love, but really she is one of the worst mothers that I’ve seen depicted,” she says. “She doesn’t have the instinctive emotional intelligence that a good mother would have in dealing with her children. I have the feeling that she probably would have been well advised not to have been a mother. But instead, because of her expectations of herself, she has all these children who she loves, but then she unwittingly wreaks psychological havoc on them; you see the effect of her lack of child-rearing skills when you jump forward in time.” She continues: “I think what is bittersweet about it is that without meaning to, she has screwed them up. It is interesting the way J.B. Priestley suggests and represents how that can happen — for all the most understandable reasons in the world — within the context of a loving family.”
At this point we ask McGovern to look through a different peephole into her life and career — to go back 37 years, when the Illinois native started at Juilliard with aspirations of a career in the theatre.
“Literally, my summer job was a movie that won an Academy Award for Best Picture that year, so I had a kind of topsy-turvy start.” The year was 1980 and the movie was Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s first film as a director. McGovern was just 19 years old. “I say that I started at the top and then steadfastly worked my way down by just working really hard. But it all worked out well in the end,” she says. With her second movie, Ragtime, she received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role as Evelyn Nesbit, the chorus girl whose affair with architect Stanford White resulted in a notorious New York scandal at the turn of the 19th century.
“My plan at the beginning was to try to have a career in L.A. and do plays in New York,” McGovern recalls. For a while it did look like it would work out that way: There were more Hollywood movies; she got engaged to actor Sean Penn when she was 23; and she also worked on the New York stage. Then in 1992, not long after her appearance in Hamlet on Broadway, she married English director and producer Simon Curtis and relocated to London. “It was his fifth time sitting through quite a long production of Hamlet that made him seem like a guy worth keeping!” she reports. “That drew me to England, and then I had kids who are now very English.”
In the intervening quarter-century she acquired international renown through six seasons of Downton Abbey, playing Cora Crawley, the American heiress who married into English landed gentry to become the Countess of Grantham. Talking about her association with the beloved TV series, McGovern says, “My attitude is gratitude. I feel nothing but thankful for the opportunity that it has provided. It’s the way this business works. The fact is that the TV show has really been a platform for me to do so much other stuff — I’m just thrilled.”
One of the opportunities afforded by her fame is the chance to play music with her band, Sadie and the Hotheads. “That’s been a decadelong passion,” says McGovern, who writes the lyrics and some of the music for their songs. The band are planning to release their fourth album next year, she reports: “I’m very excited about this; it has been cooking for quite some time because all the musicians and myself, we all do lots of other things to make a living.” Would she consider doing a musical on stage? “I have a very realistic view of my own singing voice,” she replies. “It’s not a musical-theater singing voice in the classic sense of the word, so it would have to be a certain kind of thing. But the musical theater is so alive and exciting today, what you can do in that art form. It would be something that I would be thrilled to work on. God, yeah, there’s nothing so immediate and connecting as wonderful music.”
McGovern also talks enthusiastically about the independent movie that she recently developed with Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes. The film is based on The Chaperone, a novel by Laura Moriarty about the woman who, in 1922, accompanied silent film icon Louise Brooks (then an irreverent 15-year-old) from Kansas to New York City. McGovern discovered the book and brought it to Fellowes, and she is one of the producers of the movie, which has just completed shooting in New York. “We are doing it on a shoestring budget, which has been challenging because it is a period movie,” she reports. “It’s such a good old yarn; we have a great group of actors and we had a wonderful time doing it.”
And peeking forward in time, what does McGovern see for her future now that she is back on Broadway? “My brain never really thinks that far ahead,” she says. “I’ve been here for a couple of months working on the movie and now I’m really looking forward to just working with the ensemble of Time and the Conways on this fantastic material. I’m having a good, long reunion with New York and I’m loving being back. Beyond that, I can’t say.”