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"I feel like I've scored whenever I get a job at the Arden," says veteran Philly actress Grace Gonglewski, who took time out from rehearsing Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten to chat about her role as tough-as-nails Josie Hogan. The Barrymore Award-winner has been on this company's stage at least 20 times before. "I think this makes my 22nd show, actually," she says. "Or 23? Either way, it's home." This time around, she's really hit the jackpot: Gonglewski's part of the Arden's first-ever shot at the exigent O'Neill oeuvre, under director Matt Pfeiffer. And it's no walk in the park.
City Paper: Josie Hogan is one of O'Neill's roughest characters — hard-talking, sharp-edged, highly physical, domineering yet ruined. How'd you get inside her head?
Grace Gonglewski: I started listening to the lines on tape about a month before rehearsals. I changed my workout and weight-lifting regime to build up strength. I dyed and permed my hair, grew all my hair in — legs, underarms, eyebrows — and whitened my teeth to make me as close to O'Neill's description as possible. Pfeif, I and the costume department added padding here, revealing flesh there. I asked my husband to teach me how to wield an ax so I could chop wood on stage. I wanted to do some men's work during the first act, not just snap beans and sweep. I don't think this is really what you are asking.
CP: Not really, but I'm enjoying hearing about you with an ax.
GG: As for the insides, I am part Josie. All American women are. I think we think we're less than we are — too fat, too this, too that — and work hard to keep our partners and families thriving at our own expense. We stuff our real voices down and hide behind masks to survive and avoid pain. Josie's mask of vitriol is different from mine — when I run lines, I find my face ends up all scowly and scrunched. She is mad, mad, mad. I like that she is flawed — she's not a saint. I just try go deep and stay there and force myself to absorb her reality. I love my job.
CP: Are you good at chopping wood?
GG: A have had some good schooling, and I am getting better. Chopping takes too long — bang, bang, clang, no one hears what anyone says — so we worked it so I make the kindling instead. ... The main thing I've mastered is contracting my core for all the physical work I do on stage.
CP: You must be exhausted.
GG: Totally dead, yet I can't fall asleep and I wake in the middle of the night. My throat is sore. Pfeif wants my voice placed lower and has erased any natural musicality I bring to this kind of lyrical text. I am bruised and — just beat up. Whatever. Soon we won't be rehearsing all day — it will only be once or twice a day that I'll visit the darkness of the play, instead of steeping myself in it all day long. I'm grateful to have a husband who is full time with homework and making dinner for the kid. I still get up at 6:30 to get breakfast and everyone out the door. I told myself it's OK to skip the gym for a few weeks since the play is workout enough. Interestingly for me, who loves a glass of wine at night, I can't drink at all with this one. It is so big — like a black freight train that I'm trying to jump, and occasionally I find myself instantly under her crushing wheels. I have to keep my head clear just to stay on track.
CP: Is there a particular passage in Misbegotten that sticks with you?
GG: There are some key lines for me, many of which Jim [played by Eric Hissom] says, not me. He talks about how he and I are cut from the same cloth and we can't live a lie to ourselves like most people. He ends the line with poetry, and damn if I don't hear some ghosts calling to me during that speech. I know what that special tie is between a devil and his dam. I am weeping a little now just thinking of it — heartbreaking. That one is essential, and Eric does it so well. Slaughters me.
CP: Do you play Josie as someone looking for redemption, or shielding herself from hurt?
GG: She is looking for love and acceptance. Like all of us, scared shitless of it at the same time. That girl does not keep herself from being hurt. She opens her heart up wide in hope, and her hopes get smashed, and then she picks up the pieces and keeps going.
A Moon for the Misbegotten runs through Feb. 27, $29-$48, Arden Theatre Co., 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.