The Light in the Piazza

My third trip to the piazza last night. I sat in Sarah's Monday night seat, which is the coincidence of all coincidences:  center orchestra, front row. Yow. I adore the Vivian Beaumont—it feels smaller and more intimate than it actually is and the acoustics are fab, the seats are comfortable, the bathrooms are clean and many, and you know which of those qualities comes first in my book.

The reason for a third visit was to see Patti Cohenour in the role of Margaret Johnson. I didn't realize until a couple of weeks ago that she sings my very favorite song from Big River, which I've loved since college (um, almost two decades ago). She typically plays Signora Naccarelli, a very small role that doesn't give her enough to do, but she subs for Victoria Clark on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings because, well, I'm not sure why, but I can't begin to fathom the sheer amount of brain-partitioning that must go into pulling off a Wednesday matinee in one role and Wednesday evening in another. So brava and brava to that.

Clark won a well-deserved Tony last year for the role, which is that rare powerhouse lead for an actress over the age of 30: a not altogether sympathetic woman whose sole function in life has been to protect her daughter, because the one time that she failed to, when Clara was 10, the results were catastrophic and life-altering. Together mother and daughter, now 26, take a trip to Florence, where Clara falls in love with a gorgeous young Italian (as, let's be honest, who wouldn't?) who doesn't know the ladies are hiding a Very Big Secret (sorry, no spoilers here). And of course the lesson then is when and whether and how—and how far—to step back and let go.

It's a great testament to both Clark and Cohenour that they each succeeded, and that both affected me in completely different ways and in different scenes, which is unusual because I tend to form very strong biases based on who I see (or hear) first. (Juvenile, I know, but there it is.)

With Victoria Clark, it came in a scene where Margaret is talking on the phone to her husband, who is back home in Winston-Salem, and as she's speaking to him she slowly realizes he isn't listening to her, that he hasn't listened to her for years and perhaps never, and that something fundamental between them has been lost. And I remember, she's standing alone in the center of the stage holding the receiver tightly in one hand, and her face just kind of goes hollow as it dawns on her, and she stares out into the audience with a look of such sadness and resignation, I started to sob. Spontaneously, very quietly, and thoroughly embarrassed, but nevertheless. It was haunting. (And now I see it's the image they used for her great big billboard shot down in the parking garage. So apparently I'm not alone in this.)

With Patti Cohenour, it came a few scenes later, after she's found her daughter wandering through a seedy piazza at midnight, lost on the way to meet her new love. She leads Clara back to their hotel and carefully undresses her, helps her into bed, and sings her a lullabye, rocking her to sleep. She's angry, and she's scared, but she does what she has to do, what she has always done: she comforts her child. Shouldering the weight of it all alone, tucking it away somewhere deep inside. Again, a small, simple scene that totally hits home, right there in the general vicinity of your heartlight.

So what I would say: Clark's acting hit me harder, but I much preferred Cohenour in general, and my God, that voice. Of course it's all a matter of degrees: Clark's portrayal is fierce and brittle, a force of nature—almost a slap in the face, or a punch in the gut; Cohenour is softer, sweeter, more naturally maternal and easier to like (one poster on the BWW message board called Clark's interpretation "Southern nouveau riche" and Cohenour's "Southern monied gentility," which nails it pretty well). Clark's singing voice has that sharp metallic edge to it (more brass than violin, one might say), whereas Cohenour's is warmer, less strident, frankly prettier. I liked the show and the music more when I heard her singing it (loved it for the first time, actually). But ultimately both were compelling, both were a marvel, and—for me—both were a treasure. To see a mature, complicated female character on Broadway these days is rare enough; to see two actresses tackle such a role with flair and finesse, and for each to make it fully her own, is reason to celebrate.

Haven't seen it yet? See it: either here through July 2, or here on June 15th-ish. (In Chicago, I'm guessing it will be shown the following Sunday afternoon because, again, the nimrods at WTTW don't seem to understand what "LIVE from Lincoln Center" really means.)

Anyway. If nothing else, the Tony-winning costumes are killer (my costume prediction this year: The Drowsy Chaperone. Gorgeous.).