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Building Character: Enid Graham

The actress tackles Goneril’s villainy in “King Lear”

Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the title character has plenty of words for his two older daughters, few of them favorable. But amid the comparisons to plague-sores and detested kites and unnatural hags, one diatribe lands with particular force in the Public Theater’s current production.

It comes late in Act I, when Lear (Sam Waterston) learns from his oldest daughter Goneril (Enid Graham) that half of his 100 servants and knights are no longer welcome at her home. The floodgates of vitriol open, and Lear condemns her to childlessness. “Dry up in her the organs of increase,” he bellows, “And from her derogate body never spring/A babe to honor her!”

Upon hearing this, Goneril crumples to the ground as if her own life has been snuffed out, not those of her future children. When she gets up, there is a new and rather chilling glare in her eyes. Lear points an accusatory finger at her later in the scene, and Goneril violently knocks it away.

“I think of Goneril’s trajectory from a pleaser to someone who poisons her sister,” says Graham, who herself has three kids ranging from 10 months to six years old. “That curse has a lot to do with this break.”

It’s standard practice for actors to come to terms with their characters’ villainy, and Graham is no exception. She says, “If you look at the play, Goneril doesn’t do anything too bad, at least not to Lear. Except for sending him out into the storm, which he agrees to, you can easily justify everything she does.

“Would someone with no conscience stab herself in the heart?” she says, referring to Goneril’s eventual suicide. “I don’t think so.”

Off stage, there are clearly no hard feelings between this Goneril and her womb-ravaging father. “How lucky we are to have him,” Graham says of Waterston, referring to his long history with Shakespeare at the Public. Artistic director Oskar Eustis’s office features a poster of Waterston’s acclaimed 1975 Hamlet, and he also starred in a memorable production of Much Ado About Nothing. “Such an alive actor, which gives us permission to experiment and try new things every night,” Graham says.

(Oddly enough, despite being separated in age by a few decades, Graham and Waterston have both sprung from the same loins, at least on stage: Jane Alexander played Gertrude in that ’75 Hamlet before starring in 1998′s Honour, in which Graham received a Tony nomination for playing her daughter.)

Apart from Waterston’s experience, Graham says the cast and the production have also benefitted because director James Macdonald, who is best known for helming new works by the likes of Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane, doesn’t have an overarching concept. “He didn’t impose a time period or concept on the play, because any concept would diminish the possibilities,” she says. “As clever and great as a concept can be, you always have to ignore certain things in the play. And when you’re free of that, then you can just explore.”

As a result, Graham has room to make sense of one of the play’s more traditionally troublesome subplots. She views her abrupt infatuation with the villainous Edmond “as more of a reaction against first her father and then her husband.” Given her interpretation, this makes sense in a way that it rarely does: Once Lear’s verbal assault on her body hits its mark, it’s hard to put this or anything else past her.

Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).

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