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Arts & Entertainment

A Great Actress Comes Home

CFA alum stars in Huntington’s Before I Leave You


For Karen MacDonald, working on Huntington Theatre Company productions the past few seasons has been a homecoming of sorts. As a senior at BU 40 years ago, MacDonald appeared on the BU Theatre stage in a student production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and in an experimental play called Brain. “We were all the inside of someone’s head,” MacDonald recalls, laughing.

“When I was at BU, this was our theater,” says MacDonald (CFA’72). “Being here brings back really great memories of school. Some terrifying but mostly good, because it was a great place to be and a great place to be on stage.”

MacDonald, who appeared in the Huntington’s revival of William Inge’s Bus Stop two years ago at the BU Theatre, starred in November in the world premiere of Before I Leave You, by Cambridge playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, where the Huntington stages a play from each year’s lineup.

Over the course of a career that has seen her play everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Beckett and Neil Simon, MacDonald has become one of Boston’s most renowned thespians. In 2010, she won the Boston theater community’s highest honor, the Elliot Norton Award for Sustained Excellence.

“Karen’s one of the most versatile actresses I know of,” says Boston drama critic Ed Siegel, who now reviews theater for WBUR. “Whether it’s Brecht’s Mother Courage or the diner owner in William Inge’s Bus Stop, she fully inhabits her characters. It’s almost frightening how she captures each character.”

Anyone needing proof of MacDonald’s range has only to look a the 2010 season’s work. In addition to Bus Stop, she played a middle-aged Rose Kennedy in The Color of Rose, a divorcee in the drama Two Wives of India, the title role in the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, and finally, the Countess in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of the Bard’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Before I Leave You, Huntington Theatre, Boston

Kippy Goldfarb (from left), Glen Kubota, Karen MacDonald, and Ross Bickell in Before I Leave You. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Now MacDonald finds herself playing a middle-aged out of work realtor in Before I Leave You, a play billed as a “love story for grown-ups.” She says she was immediately drawn to Alfaro’s play about two “60-something” Cambridge couples: a husband and wife, their best friend—a novelist—and his sister, Trish (MacDonald’s role). “When I read it, I thought, wow—I hadn’t read a play about grown-up people in a while—people of a certain age.”

Trish has recently moved to Cambridge to take care of her ailing brother. “She’s not in the same league as the others intellectually,” says MacDonald. “When she feels left out, or they’re talking over her head, she tries her best to just chime in, but often, chiming in is exactly the wrong thing. She’s not a person who thinks a lot before she speaks.”

MacDonald fell in love with acting at the age of nine, she says, after landing the title role in a children’s theater production of Pinocchio. “When I did that first play, something just felt right. It felt like I was home,” she says. “My interest never flagged. It was always what I wanted to do.”

When it came time to choose an acting school, MacDonald surprised herself by picking BU. The Milton, Mass., native had imagined herself studying in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but at the callback for her BU audition, she says, “there was something about the atmosphere, the people I encountered, the teachers, and I thought, this is the place for me to go.”

Just before graduation, MacDonald landed a job with a now-defunct improvisational theater company, the Proposition, in Cambridge’s Inman Square. She recalls having to make up songs on the spot, creating rhymes, verses, and a chorus. Sometimes, actors would ask the audience to name a place and an object, and with just a minute to confer with one another, they’d start a scene. That proved to be great training for a career on stage, she says.

When legendary director and acting teacher Robert Brustein founded the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge in 1980, MacDonald was cast as Celia in a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, playing opposite Tony-winning actress Cherry Jones as Rosalind. MacDonald remained with the company for four seasons, returning again in 1995. By her own estimate, she has played more than 70 roles there, including Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull and the title role in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.

Like most Boston area actors, MacDonald augments her income by teaching. Currently a lecturer in dramatic arts at Harvard, she was the Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., Professor in Theatre Arts at Boston College last year and has also taught at the New England Conservatory. “When you teach, you go back to how you were taught, what you were taught,” she says. “I learned a lot from my teachers at BU. I hope that I can take what I’ve learned and turn that around and give it to a younger generation.”

When she finishes her run in Before I Leave You in mid-November, MacDonald will appear in Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts for the Lyric Stage. She will then tackle one of the greatest parts written for an actress by an American playwright: the drug-addicted mother, Mary Tyrone, in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, for the New Repertory Theatre. MacDonald admits to being slightly terrified by the challenge, but thrilled to be offered the role. “It’s a play where you kind of have to lay yourself bare. But you get to a certain age when you feel like, I’m so glad I’m going to get to play this part, because pretty soon, it might be too late.”

Asked if there’s a role she’s always wanted to play, MacDonald turns philosophical. “I figure there’s plenty of stuff still to do, plenty left to play. That’s kind of the way it’s worked for me, that a role has come along and turned out to be the right thing at the right time.”

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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