Mary McDonnell Injects Star Power Into a New People’s Light & Theatre Production

The Oscar-nominated actress stars with David Strathairn in ‘The Cherry Orchard.’

Stands With a Fist is now a Russian aristocrat. Mary McDonnell first rose to fame playing the Anglo-raised-by-Indians character in Dances With Wolves, the 1990 film that earned her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations. This month, McDonnell takes the stage at Malvern’s People’s Light & Theatre Company as another strong-willed woman with a unique name: Lubov Andreyevna Ranevskaya, the lead in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

The production runs Feb. 11 to March 8 and also features fellow Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominee David Strathairn, who starred in Good Night & Good Luck and co-starred in Lincoln, The Bourne Legacy and a host of other films and TV shows. McDonnell and Strathairn have worked together several times, including in the 1992 film, Passion Fish, which netted McDonnell her second Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

For the past seven years, McDonnell has played Los Angeles police Capt. Sharon Raydor—first on TV’s The Closer, then in her own show, Major Crimes. The latter is one of the most watched cable series of all time.

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MLT: So why are you spending your Major Crimes downtime in Malvern?

MM: This is the first time my daughter [Olivia Mell] and I have worked together. We wanted to find something to do that would be joyous and challenge both of us.

MLT: How did you meet People’s Light producing director Zak Berkman?

MM: I performed at a New York benefit for Len, his father. Olivia hung out with me that day and met everyone. Zak then moved to Philadelphia to be at People’s Light and was working with Abby Adams, who’s now directing The Cherry Orchard. David [Strathairn] worked with Abby in the past. She saw this cast coming together—David, Olivia and me—as a lovely combination of people.

MLT: It must’ve taken a lot of schedule maneuvering to make this happen.

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MM: We had to arrange my Major Crimes schedule with David’s schedule and what he’s filming, and make that work with the theater’s schedule. When we found that my hiatus was the best time to do this, we went full-steam ahead.

MLT: Major Crimes wrapped up just before Thanksgiving; rehearsals for The Cherry Orchard began Jan. 6. What was it like to go from a modern-day police captain to a 19th-century aristocrat?

MM: It was a quick turnaround for my internal creative system. I worked on the text of the play in Los Angeles, long before I went to People’s Light. That gave me the freedom to absorb it and become as familiar as I could with it—and with this moment in history and Chekhov’s life. I did a lot of reading of the text myself, because I knew I couldn’t rely on rehearsal to give me the character.

MLT: What’s it been like working with your daughter?

MM: It’s been a joy, and I’m very aware that part of it is because I’m a certain age and so is Olivia. Perhaps if she were a teenager, things would be different. But Olivia has established her own acting career, so we come to the work as two professional actresses.

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MLT: What makes theater the creative opposite of TV?

MM: With TV, I’ll stay three days ahead of filming, which could be three scenes or eight scenes, but I don’t do them all at once. In theater, you have to hold the whole play in your mind, all at once, for many nights. But you have to make the dialogue seem fresh, as though you’ve never said the words before the audience is hearing them. I’d say that’s the challenge of theater most actors love.


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