Squeezing Real “Blood” From a Stone
Gordon Clapp and Ann Dowd get angry in The New Group’s latest play
Blood From a Stone almost forces you to think about the psychology of its working-class characters. They’re not just angry: They’re angry about specific things that happened yesterday. They don’t just insult each other. They jab at wounds that are twenty years old. They seem like real people with real minds who can do real damage.
But what does that mean for an actor? For the cast of The New Group’s world premiere, opening tonight at Theatre Row, what does it cost to bring these characters to life?
Ask Ann Dowd. Her character Margaret is a night-shift nurse whose husband spends his free time with a married woman. Meanwhile, her younger son steals to cover his gambling debts, and her older son swipes her prescription drugs. “All those moments take a lot of time to take in and make personal,” Dowd says. “Sometimes, at the beginning, I was just flailing in the dark. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know what kind of rage this is.’ And Scott [Elliott, the director] basically said, ‘Oh, but you do, doll. We all do. You’ve got to dig deep enough to find that point where you would actually take somebody’s head off.’”
Accessing those feelings can create unexpected empathy. When he was cast as Margaret’s husband Bill, Gordon Clapp thought the character was “a monster,” but now he understands him, even when he’s having an outburst. “It becomes a triumphant moment when I’m able to get up out of the chair and punch out the windows and say what I feel,” he says. “It’s a therapeutic path of destruction.”
It helps, of course, that the actors know more about these characters than the audience ever will. When preview performances began, Tommy Nohilly’s script was 234 pages and ran over three hours. That was too long, but the extra scenes taught the actors volumes about their characters.
“I hate to admit it, but we were all really mad at Scott because he waited until previews to change everything,” jokes Clapp. “But the play moves better now, and all that stuff is still there for us.”
Dowd adds, “A lot of the things that were cut were things that didn’t need to be said because they were being acted. But it did provide us with a lot of history.”
Still, no matter how much history she knows, Dowd can’t give everything to Margaret. “The places you go in yourself to get to that experience that this character might be having—you don’t go to places that unhinge you,” she says. “If there are issues that bring you to your knees in life, you don’t go there. You respect that that has not been processed for you yet, so that is not an area where creativity is going to happen. You’re going to be enslaved by it, and that’s not the game here.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor