April 02, 1998


ACTOR'S ACTOR : Donna Murphy


Gravity's Rainbow


Donna Murphy carries the weight of the world on her small, sturdy shoulders--at least, that seems to be the link between the roles she's best known for, in Tony-winning turns as Fosca in Sondheim & Lapine's 1993 Passion and as Anna in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I. Fosca was a disfigured, self-dramatizing romantic in hopeless love with a strapping young soldier, while Anna, as played by Murphy, was a headstrong, haunted widow whose signature song was not "Getting to Know You" but the bittersweet "Hello, Young Lovers."


Since then, whether in contemporary roles (a recurring turn as Stanley Tucci's sophisticate wife on the series Murder One, a small part in Jade) or strictly in period (Abigail Adams in the PBS miniseries Liberty, Mary Todd Lincoln in TNT's new The Day Lincoln Was Shot, which airs Apr. 12), Murphy has proven that her unique gravity translates well to a variety of media and dramatic situations.


"I believe things fall into your path for a reason," Murphy philosophized in a recent interview. "I've had something to give these ladies of another time, but also to women who had some kind of emotional weight to them. It's my job to find the variety."


Recently, she was employed to provide consistency: Last week she wrapped a role that stretches over two Monday night David E. Kelley legal series, Ally McBeal and The Practice, set to air consecutively on their respective networks Apr. 27. All she could say about her mystery role is that "the tone is different on the two shows, and my job is to have a certain consistency that carries through."


A lot carries through in a Murphy performance, most strikingly onstage: She is among those rare performers who can make the most subtle behavior or thorny, impacted emotional moments register all the way to the back row of a Broadway balcony. It may be her eloquent Greek mask of a face, which in Passion was transformed into something out of Breughel, warts and all, or her dusky, often stately vocal quality which allows her such power of communication.


But Murphy attributes this finely attuned expressive power to her own experience on the other side of the footlights.


"When I'm an audience member, I'm often surprised by what can be arresting and yet so tiny or so still," she said. "There is such power in stillness. The biggest moments in life often don't register in some bombastic way. So I try to remind myself of that when I'm onstage, and to trust that it's getting across."


It may be her reputation for this kind of subtlety and seriousness that has helped her get across a typical Hollywood barrier--the prejudice that says musical theatre performers aren't "real" actors. But even before she became widely known for her dramatic heft on Broadway, she had a reputation, she said, as a "character actress who reinvented herself from role to role."


She still tries to shake things up, with an upcoming independent film, Oct. 22, and a role in the next Star Trek movie that at least promises a respite from tortured heroines: She plays Capt. Picard's love interest, a woman from a planet where cells endlessly regenerate and the inhabitants never age.


"They're a patient, serene people who don't have any sense of urgency," said Murphy.


Urgency or not, we're sure it's a planet with plenty of gravity.


--Rob Kendt