An Appraisal: Jan Maxwell Was a Star Made for the Stage

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They both found the sincerity, and even a kind of wisdom, in the affectations of women for whom theater was both a religion and a game. Watching them together, I remembered why I had fallen in love with the theater in the first place.

Not that Ms. Maxwell was at home only in frothy period pieces, though like Ms. MacDonald (and Christine Ebersole and Donna Murphy) she possessed an uncanny (and uncommon) affinity for the styles of other times. Ms. Maxwell was also New York’s finest interpreter of the work of the renegade British dramatist Howard Barker — whose angry works regularly went way out on limbs, taking their performers it — in whose plays she appeared Off Broadway with the Potomac Theater Project.

Video

In Performance | Jan Maxwell

A scene from Anthony Giardina’s play “The City of Conversation,” about three decades in the life of a Washington socialite.

By Erik Piepenburg and Erik Braund on Publish Date July 7, 2014. . Watch in Times Video »

I first saw Ms. Maxwell on Broadway in 1997, when she appeared in Anthony Page’s immortal production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” in which she held her own against the show’s whirlwind star, Janet McTeer. Her part, the pragmatic Christine, had her playing sense to Ms. McTeer’s sensibility, and she registered as trenchantly sane, though not without shadows of distress.

Then again, she was blissfully bonkers in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the 2005 mega-musical for children, in which she played the evil Baroness of Vulgaria as a latter-day variation on Marlene Dietrich that was too incisive to be merely camp. The show had a flying car and adorable kids and Raúl Esparza, but all I can remember from it now is Ms. Maxwell.

Oh, yes, Ms. Maxwell could sing and dance like gangbusters, when the occasion required it. In the 2011 Broadway revival of “Follies,” Stephen Sondheim and William Goldman’s 1971 musical about the ghosts of showbiz past, she played the disenchanted socialite Phyllis as a figure of glittering fire and ice. And when this Phyllis melted, for a torchy fantasy dance number, Ms. Maxwell blazed, though an icy astuteness still glimmered from her eyes.

I’m sure that mine was one of many hearts that broke when Ms. Maxwell announced in 2015 that she would be retiring from the stage. For her farewell performance, she appeared in a play by Mr. Barker she had done before, “Scenes From an Execution.” She portrayed an uncompromising Italian painter from the 16th century (based on the artist Artemisia Gentileschi), a lone woman in a world of patronizing men.

The profound rage, pain, ecstasy and ambivalence that Ms. Maxwell brought to the role was searing. But it was also shaped by an acute and careful understanding of craft that felt somehow of a piece with the woman she was playing.

When her character is described as “a meteor cleaving her way through dark places,” you could only nod in agreement. Such meteors leave bright traces, and they are still visible in the minds of anyone who had the privilege of watching Ms. Maxwell onstage.

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