Four wildly different mothers and a jazz legend teetering on the brink of self-destruction are the roles played by this year’s Tony nominees for Best Actress in a Play. Each performer brings her own distinct talents to these varied women, balancing touches of comedy with reams of subtext and pathos.
Mothers and Sons
The most effective moments of Tyne Daly’s moving performance as Katherine, the lonely Dallas widow visiting the New York home of Cal, the former lover of her dead son, in Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons, are silent. Informing every glance with volumes of subtext, Daly reveals Katharine’s gut-wrenching yearning for some connection with her lost offspring. As she goes through old photographs, you can see the memories each one evokes on her subtly shifting features. A previous Tony winner for her Mama Rose in Gypsy, she’s also brilliantly moving and funny with McNally’s sharp dialogue, perfectly timing pathos-invoking observations and guffaw-inducing punchlines.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson
A Raisin in the Sun
Though Phylicia Rashad won a Tony Award for playing the same role of Lena Younger in the last Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, LaTanya Richardson Jackson makes it her own. She infuses Lena with an iron-willed determination to bring her family out of their Chicago slum apartment, but she also recognizes that her harsh judgments may be damaging to them. You can see it’s hard for her to relinquish control of the family to her eldest child, Walter Lee. In the play’s final moments, she cedes power to her son and lets him confront the bigoted representative of the white community the Youngers plan to move to, and a mix of emotions and memories play across her face.
The Glass Menagerie
Amanda Wingfield, the faded Southern belle based on Tennessee Williams’ own mother, has been played actresses as varied as Laurette Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, Jessica Lange, and Judith Ivey. She’s usually seen as a delusional woman, trapped in her memories of her genteel girlhood and selfishly stifling her two grown children, Tom and Laura. But Tony winner Cherry Jones (Doubt) gives us a loving mother who is as down-to-earth as they come. She wants the best for her son and daughter, but doesn’t know how to give it to them.
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
Having won five Tonys, you would think there was no way Audra McDonald could top herself. But with her indelible portrait of the tormented jazz singer Billie Holiday, she has. Lanie Robertson’s 90-minute intermissionless play with music recreates a late-night set at a South Philadelphia night club just a few months before Holiday’s death. In between standards such as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” she pours out her tragic life story beset with drug addiction, prostitution, and spousal abuse. Not only does McDonald shift her own distinctive soprano intoHoliday’s sandpaper growl, but she gives full body to the passion, humor, and sorrow of this tragic figure.
The Velocity of Autumn
Estelle Parsons is known for her laser-like intensity and unscrupulous honesty, whether playing the argumentative alcoholic mother Bev on the sitcom Roseanne or the reluctant criminal accomplice Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde. As a fiery septuagenarian Alexandra in Eric Coble’s now-closed comedy-drama The Velocity of Autumn, she is no less focused. Barricading herself in her Brooklyn brownstone and whipping up a batch of improvised Molotov cocktails, she threatens to blow herself and the whole block up if her interfering children don’t stop pestering her about moving into a retirement home. Parsons uses wisecracks like weapons in Alexandra’s war of wills with her estranged son Chris and fights like the devil against her increasing infirmities.