Actress Dawn Ursula will be on stage for just one scene in the Everyman Theatre production of Doubt. But the scene - a conversation between a parent and the principal of an elementary school in the Bronx in 1964 - is among the most riveting and gasp-inducing of the entire show.
In John Patrick Shanley's play, which won the 2005 Tony Award, a self-righteous nun suspects that Father Flynn, a charismatic and forward-thinking new priest, is molesting the school's only African-American pupil. The nun eventually discloses her concerns to the boy's mother, played by Ursula. (A film version starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams is slated to be released in December by Miramax Films.)
Ursula excels at portraying unsympathetic characters, from the male-bashing Kate in the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's recent production of The Taming of the Shrew, to an imperious West African government bureaucrat during the staging last fall of Bruce Norris' The Unmentionables in Washington.
The 30-something New Carrollton resident, an ensemble member of both Everyman and Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre, sat down recently to discuss how she forges an empathetic connection with characters whom the audience may dislike.
How do you prepare for a role?
I start working on a script just about the day after I get the part. I write a biography of my character. For instance, my character's name in Doubt is Mrs. Muller. I gave her a first name, and I gave her husband a first name, and I wrote their life stories.
I also do text work: analyzing the rhythm of her speech and breaking down her lines into beats. What is my character saying? What is she not saying? What is her motivation, and what tactics is she using to get what she wants?
What was your initial response to Mrs. Muller?
It was some combination of astonished and sympathetic. I was shocked by what she does. I really was. But I never thought she was a monster, probably because I knew that I was going to be playing her. Clearly, she loves this child. She got him into this good, private school, and she's got plans for his future. In that era, that took a lot of strength and courage.
So, when she makes other choices that seem to contradict the love, that tells me she was forced into that position by circumstances. She makes the best choice she can, given the cards she's been dealt.
Because the play was set in the 1960s, you use some terms that were polite at the time but that would be considered offensive today. Does that bother you?
Yeah, Mrs. Muller refers to her son as "colored" and she uses the word "Negro." It feels foreign, but it's not uncomfortable. It works wonderfully, because mentally and emotionally, it puts me into the place and the era when the play was set. It gives the audience a little jolt that clues them into the volatility and the unfairness of the early 1960s.
The title of the play is "Doubt." Shanley must want the audience to think about the dangers of absolute certainty. How does the role of Mrs. Muller help to develop that theme?
Just before my character comes on stage, the audience has the sense that a situation that has been very muddled is about to get clearer. But everything goes in a completely different direction than they expect, and by the time Mrs. Muller leaves, the audience is even more befuddled than before. All their questions, all their doubts, have been magnified.
It's just brilliant.
I also realized that in the play, each of the four characters has something they're willing to sacrifice to obtain their goals. Mrs. Muller is willing to make a huge sacrifice to ensure her son's survival and success. But, at what cost?
if you go
Doubt runs at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., through Oct. 5. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $24-$38. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.