Building Character: Mary Beth Peil
The actress plays a cantankerous diva for Primary Stages
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages’ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles
With silver hair and sparkling eyes, Mary Beth Peil is known for portraying characters with both gravitas and whimsy, whether in the recent Broadway revival of Follies or as Grams on TV’s Dawson’s Creek.
But in her latest role, Peil’s playing a cantankerous diva for a change. She stars as real-life former violin prodigy Erica Morini in The Morini Strad, Willy Holtzman’s new drama at Primary Stages.
“I always find it more fun to play someone who is unlike you,” says the actress. “It’s like going in to a big playpen: To be that outrageously diva-esque, manipulative, cranky and yet so playful, is such fun.”
Still, Peil finds nuance in Morini’s mercurial persona. When correcting a music student, her accusations have laser intensity. Later, when demonstrating old dance steps, she glows with mischief.
As she prepared for the show, Peil connected to Morini through her own operatic training—along with 20 years working in the stressful operatic world. “I didn’t have to do research to find the passion, love, training, and discipline of classical music,” she says. “I personally understand that kind of monkey on your back in striving for perfection. I feel entitled to play Erica because of that.”
The audience meets Morini far past her prime, as she confronts her dwindling legacy and failing health. When she decides to sell a famous violin—her most beloved and defining possession—she calls upon a brilliant yet unknown violinmaker and repairman, Brian Skarstad (Michael Laurence). A volatile friendship emerges, forcing both to examine their lives, choices, and music.
Throughout the play, Morini continuously asserts her rigid motto: “Being an artist means never compromising.” Peil isn’t certain she agrees. “I believe you can have both personal and professional success, just not always fully realized at the same time,” she says. “My life has been—in the best sense of the word—a compromise. At times I choose raising my family and other times I choose a career opportunity.”
And unlike Morini, who was inextricably attached to the rigor of classical music, Peil decided to leave the opera world in her early 40s. “I loved being onstage in concert, but I didn’t feel I belonged to that milieu,” she explains.
After leaving the opera and starting a family, she was ushered into musical theatre by a fortuitous offer to play Kate in the Minnesota Opera’s production of Kiss Me Kate. With an amused chuckle, Peil recalls, “I had no idea what to expect; in the opera world we weren’t allowed to do musical theatre for fear of harming your voice. Instead, my voice got stronger because I was released from the obligation to be perfect.”
Peil has also focused on her character’s friendship with the violinmaker. “Michael and I worked on the relationship between Brian and Erica slowly and carefully,” she says. “We also had the benefit of having the actual Brian on-call. We saw him make violins and had him as a resource to verify the actual relationship. Of course, you have to be careful to not be overly obligated to reality when theatricalizing a true story.”
But even though she’s not chained to historical accuracy, she does feel honored to be reviving the memory of a major artist. “Because much of Erica’s possessions are gone, she herself has virtually disappeared,” Peil says. “It’s gratifying and important to try, in our small way, to make up for what history has left in the dust.”
Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City
Mary Beth Peil photo by James Leynse