Women at the Helm: Pam MacKinnon

Women at the Helm: Pam MacKinnon

Director Pam MacKinnon has blazed a path in New York theater and on stages elsewhere, with nuanced but unsparing portraits of human struggle. She brought audiences her shattering Tony Award–winning take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (one of numerous Edward Albee plays she’s helmed, to great acclaim) and a witty, moving revival of The Heidi Chronicles.

“I look for fully rounded characters,” MacKinnon explains. “I want women and men to be portrayed as messy human beings, because that’s the way we go through life.”

Like Heidi, MacKinnon’s latest Broadway project, The Parisian Woman (opening November 30 at the Hudson Theatre), traces the challenges facing smart, searching women and men in a still-patriarchal culture. The milieu here is, to be sure, very different: Set in the present in Washington, D.C., The Parisian Woman follows Chloe, an elegant socialite — played by Uma Thurman, making her Broadway debut — married to a prominent attorney. Tom is aiming for a position as judge on a high court and hoping to win favor with a new president, whose fondness for Twitter is referenced in an early line. (Other telling references are sprinkled in later.) Political and sexual intrigue ensue.

Playwright Beau Willimon — known outside theater circles for creating Netflix’s House of Cards, which has pulled no punches in its depiction of Beltway striving and scheming — first crafted The Parisian Woman years before Donald Trump had even announced his run for president. Inspired by 19th century French scribe Henri Becque’s eyebrow-raising La Parisienne, and commissioned by the Flea Theater, The Parisian Woman premiered in 2013 at Orange County’s South Coast Repertory.

Willimon and MacKinnon realized the text would require revision. “The Beltway drama was already in place,” MacKinnon says. “But then last November, the world changed. We had multiple big conversations, right around last Christmas.” The Parisian Woman consequently “became more topical, and the stakes were raised within this marriage of ambition and idealism, and with every character.”

One character who was particularly fleshed out is Rebecca, a young lawyer with prestigious academic credentials and well-connected parents whose politics differ markedly from her own. Rebecca is played by Phillipa Soo, whom MacKinnon directed in last season’s Amelie, A New Musical; Blair Brown is cast as her mom, Jeannette, a Washington fixture recently appointed to a lofty position herself.

“Rebecca is an idealistic millennial,” MacKinnon notes. “And her mother is supposed to go work in this new administration; she’s a baby boomer who’s become sort of stuck in the mire.” The more elusive Chloe represents “some Gen Xers who have maybe lost their way a bit. … She’s a three-dimensional person who is hugely conflicted, at times self-serving and at times trying to get things for others.”

MacKinnon notes that she and Thurman are “almost exact contemporaries” — they’re, respectively, 49 and 47 — and thus both belong to the same generation as Chloe. The director and the film star had coffee together at the suggestion of their mutual lawyer, who “thought we might like each other.” About 40 minutes into their first conversation, MacKinnon says, Thurman “asked if she should do theater, and what she should read. I mentioned there was a new play I was attached to, written by Beau.”

MacKinnon points out that she had known and admired “Beau the playwright” long before House of Cards entered the picture. She cites Willimon’s Farragut North, “another D.C. play that’s very much about ambition,” which was inspired by Howard Dean’s colorful, ill-fated presidential campaign. (Farragut was the basis for the film Ides of March, which Willimon cowrote with George Clooney and Grant Heslov.) “Beau can wear those two hats, writing and activism, very well.”

Willimon is equally bullish on his director. MacKinnon “has been instrumental to the growth of this play since its earliest incarnation,” he says. “Her insight on the text has been revelatory. Her artistry is bold and challenging, and her collaborative spirit is warm and generous. And her confidence as a leader always make you feel that your work is in good hands. I’m deeply grateful for that. Working with Pam has made the play better, and made me better as a writer.”

Adds MacKinnon, who expected that the first woman president would be in office when The Parisian Woman made its Broadway bow: “I think Beau has written amazing female characters. They’re flawed. I get to feel bad for every one of them at some point — and that goes for the men as well. I can relate to them: I’ve been jealous, I’ve been in love. We get to empathize with people whose politics we may disagree with, and that’s very human food for thought.”

This is the third part in our series, Women at the Helm.

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