David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell have co-starred in films like “Passion Fish,” “Matewan” and “Sneakers.” Lately, Strathairn has been splitting his time among roles in movies, television, and on stage. McDonnell — the winner of an Obie award in 1981 — has not been on stage in decades. She currently stars in “Major Crimes,” a TV police drama on TNT.
“I love David, I love his style of acting,” said McDonnell. “I find when working with him there’s an openness to collaborating with him. That’s my favorite thing. He doesn’t judge. He’s an explorer.”
The feeling is mutual.
“She’s so available emotionally, and incisive about the choices she makes about her characters,” said Strathairn. “Her energy is infectious. She is the spirit of ‘The Cherry Orchard.'”
People Light and Theater, in Malvern, Pa., is now producing Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ and asked Strathairn and McDonnell to star as the brother and sister who must sell their estate, which has been in their family for centuries.
Strathairn had appeared at People’s Light twice before. It’s one of the few regional theaters in the country with a resident company of actors, some of whom have been working together for 40 years.
“The whole aesthetic here is so unlike anything I’ve worked with — how it’s integrated in the community and how the community has supported it. I think that’s rare,” said Strathairn before tech rehearsal a week before opening. “The entertainment business is broken down into a bunch of gypsies, scattered, going to wherever they will have them. Here, they haven’t scattered. They stayed. It feels like an oasis out here.”
For McDonnell, many strands of her life are merging at People’s Light. First, it’s a return to the thrill of the boards. “Can I do this?” she gasped. “It’s been so long.”
It’s also a kind of homecoming. McDonnell grew up just a few miles away. Between ages 7 and 12 she lived in King of Prussia, before construction of the enormous, landmark shopping mall for which the town is now known. When not working, she spends time driving around the neighborhoods and countryside.
She stumbled on her old Catholic school, Mother of Divine Providence, and remembered where the suburban streets became open fields. In the 1960s she was able to ride her bike beyond where the sidewalk ended.
“We used to go down a hill — this is in the winter — to an old house in a field. It was abandoned. When the snow got deep, we would go upstairs in the house, start in the back of the hall, and run out the second story window and land in the snowdrifts,” said McDonnell. “Did my parents know about this? No.”
McDonnell has been showing the old neighborhood to her daughter, Olivia Mell, 26. Like her mother, Mell is an actress, and like her mother she is appearing in this production of ‘The Cherry Orchard,’ playing opposite McDonnell as one of her daughters. Mother and daughter are playing mother and daughter.
“To be able to play family with family is very cool,” said Mell about the characters Madame Lyubov and her Anya. “They are very similar in a lot of ways — their love of life, love of art, love of love. To be able to feel that with my mother across the stage, without having to be next to her, or say anything — it’s just an eye contact thing, and it sinks in.”
The play is about a family struggling with itself, and the world. It is set in Russia a few years before the revolution, when the aristocratic establishment was crumbling. The family has not properly managed the estate, nor their relationships.
For McDonnell, the play is a chance to watch her daughter. “I’ve never seen her work as a professional. I’ve never had to relate to her as a colleague,” she said. “It’s mindblowing.”
The play is particularly poignant to McDonnell as she watches her two children become adults, and thinks about her legacy.
“As one gets older, one gets more deeply attached to place, and the land,” said McDonnell. “I understand the poignancy of losing a piece of property. 20 years ago I may not have felt that way. As soon as I re-read The Cherry Orchard I thought, ‘for goodness sake, it’s a little miracle.'”
“The Cherry Orchard” run at People’s Light and Theater, in Malvern, until March 8.