Deirdre O’Connell is not ready to say goodbye to Dana H., the role for which she recently won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Drama. This is not deluded denial, she tells The Daily Beast, but because the show will likely transfer to London. “Knowing that makes it easier. In my mind, in a year or two, I get to do it again, so it’s not goodbye forever. That’s a good buffer.”
So, it is only au revoir to night after night of sitting ramrod-straight on stage, mouthing the taped words of the real Dana H.—Dana Higginbotham, the mother of playwright Lucas Hnath—who was kidnapped and brutalized by a lunatic. The drama was a pre-pandemic triumph off-Broadway, and an atypically arty hit on Broadway when theaters reopened.
In her Tonys acceptance speech, O’Connell, as well as thanking Higginbotham “for letting us invade your privacy so completely,” added something more pointed focused on Broadway itself, the work it showcases, and the work she cherishes performing the most. “I would love for this little prize to be a token for every person who is wondering, ‘Should I be try to be making something that could work on Broadway, or that could win me a Tony Award? Or should I be making the weird art that is haunting me, that frightens me, that I don’t know how to make, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand.’
“Please let me standing here be a little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.”
True to her word, at the time of the awards, she was in rehearsal and about to open in her next show, Corsicana, Will Arbery’s off-Broadway play (Playwrights Horizons, to July 17) about a quartet of gentle, somewhat lost and untethered people in Texas. O’Connell plays a character named Justice who is supportive and wistful, and while facing emotional challenges, isn’t living in fear of her life because of a violent and depraved psychopath, like Dana H.
O’Connell reveals to The Daily Beast that her next play after Corsicana will be as the lead and titular character in Sarah Ruhl’s Becky Nurse of Salem, scheduled for the fall at Lincoln Center.
At least for now, O’Connell feels relieved “not carrying” the trauma of her character in Dana H. “It was an intense time,” she noted—she and the company also “dodged the bullet” of the Omicron variant, which spawned such chaos on Broadway in the winter just after Dana H. closed.
The last couple of performances were “very emotional. It felt like a very intense release. I felt very celebratory somehow for her, and very connected to the idea I had done her right, that somehow the spiritual work we were doing for her we had done as well as we could. I listened to [Tom Petty’s] ‘Free Girl Now’ a lot that last week. Often, doing a show, you feel you will have a cathartic experience and it can be slightly disappointing when you don’t. But this felt pretty cathartic.”
The legendary composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim came to the show the night before Thanksgiving, two days before his death at age 91. It was the last Broadway show he saw.
“We were so excited that he was there,” O’Connell said. “We were very overwhelmed by the fact he had honored us by being there at all. Some people told me he had loved the show and talked about it at the Thanksgiving dinner he was at. He was one of the epic theater-makers who pushed the envelope witnessing what we were trying to do. I hope he felt it was worthy enough to be his last show.
“He was such an adventurer as a theater-goer and theater-maker. I hope we did him proud, I hope he felt thrilled by it,” she added. “I didn’t speak to him, but I was sure thrilled he was there. You want challenges, you want to be taught new ways of doing things all the time. He was very much a leader in that. We were so overwhelmed by his passing, it took a lot of the onus off our closing [on Nov. 28].”
O’Connell, 70, misses the “clarity” of doing Dana H., and in retrospect is also aware of the toll it took on her and the “free-floating anxiety” the role brought with it, which was quite separate to the performance anxiety she usually has. “It was a dance with the devil,” she said. “Things were generally a little more frightening and edgy than usual. I was unaware of how slightly crazy it was making me until now, looking back. It’s nice to be working in this play. Sure, my character has demons, but nothing like Dana H., which was also a gift to perform. I was just slightly off. Corsicana has a gentleness to it. I am not playing in the level of darkness I was in Dana H.”
“It was like getting shot out of a cannon”
O’Connell, a doyenne of downtown theatre, was shocked to win the Tony Award. It helped, she said, that she was in the middle of rehearsals and previews of Corsicana, rather than living in the “dream state” of Tonys hoopla. She was most concerned about avoiding getting COVID at the awards show, “because I’m in a play with no understudies. Later, I heard quite a few people got sick. Lifting the mask mandate makes me nervous. I understand why they’re doing it, but I want to avoid it because I have an elderly mom and a job I want to do. It’s not that dire to sit there with a mask on. I know it’s a drag, but it’s not the end of the world.”
On the night, O’Connell used her dressing room at Playwrights Horizons to get ready. She was sitting behind Simon Russell Beale (who won Best Actor, Drama, for The Lehman Trilogy), and saw RuPaul, and A Strange Loop’s creator Michael R. Jackson. “I didn’t really know him before all this Tonys stuff started. At various events we found each other, and asked ‘are you OK?’ I love him. We would throw our arms around each other. It felt like we were the opposite sides, play and musical, of breaking the Broadway glass ceiling. He said to me, ‘If you’re freaking out at one of these things, find me and we’ll talk.’ He was such a dear.”
As nominations were read out, O’Connell got used to the camera being on her and was aware of not being the focus of a “horrible shot,” win or lose. She was ready to applaud the winner. Instead, her name was announced, and “it was like getting shot out of a cannon.”
But, as O’Connell’s speech showed us, she wanted to use that moment to promote new work on Broadway. She had written the speech “at 4 in the morning, three nights before.” Arbery’s voice was “so in my head,” O’Connell told The Daily Beast, laughing. “I say, ‘weird’ like 587 times in Corsicana. It’s a good word, and it fit what I needed to say. As an actor, I live in the pockets of knowledge my character inhabits. When I played a biologist, I knew about biology. I wanted to talk to those people working in the theater who feel the divide of making the thing they like and making the thing they think will be commercially successful.
“Both Dana H. and [Best Musical winner] A Strange Loop made different cracks in the Broadway firmament this year. Maybe that crack can keep on opening. Lots of different people came to see Dana H. People assume these are difficult shows, but people are coming to see them, enjoying them, and understanding them. There will always be a space on Broadway for the big, fun shows people usually come to Broadway for, but I hope there will also be room for other kinds of shows.”
O’Connell laughs when asked if the award will change her own career. “I think we’re going to find out. Stay tuned to this channel! I don’t know. So far, I am putting one foot in front of the other. Nobody has said, ‘You’re going to be a movie star.’” She does admit, though, that it will be “nice” for shows to use “Tony Award-winning” next to her name in their advertising.
Her fellow Corsicana stars welcomed her back to the theater with balloons and cake two days later. And the night this reporter saw the play, five days post-Tonys, there was a smattering of applause for O’Connell when she appeared on stage. This kind of response has slightly freaked her out; she is now a bigger, more known star, and audiences are responding in kind. “They’re not supposed to do that, and it hasn’t kept going,” O’Connell said. “One night they did it, I thought, ‘Oh man, they’re a little excitable.’ They did it to everything I did. I’m not that funny! I thought, ‘Is this what it’s like to be Patti LuPone?’ It’s calmed down, thank goodness.”
More chuckling. “I do not want to experience this deep corruption! I am not going to become, ‘I am the greatest.’ There’s this thing of people being excited witnessing something. That’s the thing of appearing on Broadway. Doing Dana H., you do have this sense that audiences have paid a lot of money to have a peak experience and want a peak experience. They will take a good experience and turn it into a peak experience for everybody in the room. That’s the deal, that’s the contract.”
O’Connell hopes the Tony Award will mean she can have “conversations with the right people about things I like to do. Maybe I will have a little more control and power, but I don’t know. It has been a little nerve-wracking to be self-conscious about winning the award. I realized I needed to wrassle it to the ground in my performance the first couple of days afterwards. If you get a bad review, and you read it, you have to wrassle your shame to the ground: ‘Did people read it?’ ‘Are people looking at me differently?’ Even a good thing like a Tony Award brings new demons to quell. I was just aware of the audience in a different way. It was like a slight self-consciousness. Next day, I had to get really centered, and hone in on what the play and my character is about.”
“I understand the chemistry of being with a theater audience”
O’Connell grew up in Massachusetts, performing in local theater from a young age. In her early forties, she told The Daily Beast last year, she thought she should make money, so she moved to Los Angeles, where she played “the sidekick or a best friend” in a slew of made-for-TV movies. But she became so artistically disenchanted that she moved back to New York. Frugality is her friend. As she has aged, she has become more aware of “the athleticism of being an actor” in order to do the best work, especially when it comes to pulling off eight performances a week.
“I was never someone who was like, ‘I want to get on Broadway,’” she said. “I wanted to be an actor, and have gotten to do that for longer than I expected. I did not have a sense of being denied something that I deserved or had earned. I didn’t have that feeling towards Broadway. But it’s been very nice that it’s shown an experimental piece of theater can make it on Broadway, and that we should not underestimate Broadway audiences’ sophistication.”
After Corsicana—in a confirmed engagement long before the Tonys—O’Connell will appear in Becky Nurse of Salem at Lincoln Center, which she said is scheduled for late October and early November. She will play the title character, a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, who was executed for witchcraft in 1692. Her modern-day descendant works as a tour guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft, “who gets fired for using bad words with kids,” said O’Connell.
“She’s a tough, hilarious broad who’s going through a very difficult time about class, opioid addiction, families, survival, women, and money. She ends up going to jail. A lot of bad stuff happens to her, but it’s very funny, very sad, and very delicate. I like it so much. I’m from Massachusetts originally, and so much in it is deeply familiar to me about these kinds of ladies, these kinds of towns, and this kind of wreckage.” When O’Connell goes to Maine this summer to attend her stepson’s wedding, she is planning a visit to the museum itself.
O’Connell is open to any film and TV roles that may come her way—she has performed as a lot of “helpful functionaries” in shows and movies throughout her career—but while she had “a few great experiences” working on screen, she tends to feel more self-conscious in front of a camera than on stage. (The Affair fans would recognize her as Athena, the hippy-dippy mother of Alison, played by Ruth Wilson.)
“I understand the chemistry of being with a theater audience, and the possibility of that wonderful moment of not being self-conscious in front of an audience,” O’Connell explained. “It’s hard for a theater actor to find that sweet spot with a camera. I am not without a desire for the screen, but if I had to choose one or the other, I would be more likely to choose plays.”
She “wouldn’t mind doing some Shakespeare,” though she doesn’t have any specific roles in mind. “Those plays are magic, magic spells.” At the 2019 Williamstown Theatre Festival, O’Connell appeared in Adam Bock’s play Before the Meeting, focusing on a group of five people who prepare the room for a regular AA meeting to begin. COVID got in the way of a possible New York run, but O’Connell hopes it might now be achievable. “I’m still aching to do that great play. I play the Miss Bossypants of the coffee planners, and get to speak the most beautiful 20 minutes of monolog I have ever gotten to do. I’d love to bring that to New York if possible.”
O’Connell laughs, an exaggeratedly theatrical mwah-ha-ha. “Now that I have amassed this enormous amount of power!”