31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1986’s ‘NIGHT, MOTHER

An Oscar winner performing on the Arkansas Rep stage is a rarity. To have one playing the same role she played in a national tour — well, that has only happened once.

From April 17 to May 4, 1986, Mercedes McCambridge starred in the Rep’s production of Marsha Norman’s two-hander ‘night, Mother. In 1984, she headlined the national tour of this same production.

McCambridge and Rep founder/Artistic Director Cliff Fannin Baker had been discussing potential project ideas for a few years.  In the mid-1980s, she lived in Little Rock. Though by 1986 she had moved away, she was glad to return for this project.

The show was directed by Baker and co-starred Cathey Crowell Sawyer.  In his Gazette review Jack Weatherly noted that it was Sawyer’s finest performance to date. Of McCambridge he opined she was “lighting up those recesses of our lives with humor and humanity.”

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Rocking the Tony Awards – Past Tony nominees at Arkansas Rep

Photo by Peter Kramer/ Getty Images Entertainment

The 72nd Tony Awards take place on Sunday, June 10 at Radio City Music Hall (broadcast on CBS).

Over the years, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre has had several Tony nominees work on stage and backstage.

Among these are:

Julie Andrews, who headlined a 2002 fundraiser for Arkansas Rep.  That evening she shared stories about her life and career.  A two-time Tony Award host, she has been nominated three times for Actress in a Musical: My Fair Lady (1957), Camelot (1961) and Victor/Victoria (1996).

Jane Lanier, who choreographed Ring of Fire at Arkansas Rep.  In 1989, she was nominated as Featured Actress in a Musical for her work in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.  

Mercedes McCambridge, who appeared in ‘night, Mother at the Rep in the spring of 1986.  She was nominated as Featured Actress in a Play for The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks for the 1972 awards.

Austin Pendleton, who directed A Loss of Roses at Arkansas Rep.  After appearing in the original cast of Tony winning Best Musical Fiddler on the Roof, he later received a Tony nomination for directing the 1981 revival of The Little Foxes which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Maureen Stapleton.

Jane Summerhays, who starred in the Arkansas Rep production of A Loss of Roses.  In 1987, she was nominated for Featured Actress in a Musical for Me and My Girl.

John Tartaglia, who directed 2013’s Because of Winn Dixie.  He was nominated for the 2004 Tony for Actor in a Musical for his performance in Avenue Q.

Japhy Weideman, who was the Rep’s lighting designer in the early 2000’s.  While he was at the Rep, he lit several shows including The Grapes of Wrath, All My Sons and God’s Man in Texas.  He has received Tony nominations for lighting design for his work on The Nance (2013), Of Mice and Men (2014), Airline Highway (2015), The Visit (2015), and Dear Evan Hansen (2017).

The fact that the Arkansas Repertory Theatre has been able to work with theatre artists of this calibre is a testament to the quality of work it has produced.  Giving the opportunity for Arkansas audiences to have this interaction without leaving the state is one of the values of the Rep.

Repertorium Praeter Theatrum

Pulitzers Play Little Rock: ‘NIGHT, MOTHER on Arkansas Rep stage with Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge

MercedesIt is not often that an Oscar winner has appeared in a play on a Little Rock stage.  But in the spring of 1986, Mercedes McCambridge starred in Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

She had moved to Little Rock a few years prior to live full time to be close to family. From time to time, she and Cliff Baker (the Rep’s founder) would have conversations about potential projects. But it was not until 1986, that the stars aligned.  By this point, she had moved away from Little Rock, but was still back from time to time to visit family.  (In an interview with the Arkansas Gazette, she also praised Fred Poe and noted that he was her travel agent for her many excursions.)

Appearing on stage with McCambridge in Norman’s two-hander was Rep veteran Cathey Crowell Sawyer.

Though noted for her film work, McCambridge had appeared on Broadway several times including opposite Little Rock native Ben Piazza in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and receiving a Tony nomination for her work in the play The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks.

Prior to appearing at the Rep, she had recently toured in the play Agnes of God.  She related to the Gazette that she had been approached to do that play prior to Broadway but did not feel the character she was to play was believable.  When the national tour came about, a conversation with playwright John Pielmeier changed her mind.

Her last Broadway appearance was in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lost in Yonkers.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Rock the Oscars: Mercedes McCambridge

Mercedes McCambridge won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her film debut.  The film was All the King’s Men.  She played political operative Sadie Burke.  Seven years later, she received an additional Oscar nomination for her role in Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson.

By the 1960s, she was spending most of her time on television.  In the early 1970s, she alternated between film, TV and stage.  She provided the voice of the demon in the multiple Oscar nominated film The Exorcist.

In the 1980s, she moved to Little Rock. Her son and granddaughters lived here.  While in Little Rock, she appeared at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in ‘Night, Mother.  Following her son’s death in 1987 (in a grisly murder suicide following financial improprieties on the job and his forger her signature on documents), she moved away from Little Rock.

ROCKing the TONY AWARDS – Mercedes McCambridge

Rock the TonysMercedes-McCambridgeMERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE

Little Rock connection: Lived in Little Rock for a few years in the 1980s.  In 1986, she starred in ‘night, Mother at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

Tony Awards connection: She was nominated for a Tony for Featured Actress in a Play for her performance in The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks. She also was a replacement cast member in the Tony winning Best Plays Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Lost in Yonkers (succeeding actresses who had received Tony Awards for their performances).