NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - By the time the curtain rises next week on the stage adaptation of author Chris Bohjalian's "Midwives," Ellen McLaughlin will have had a few dozen smoothies at the health food place on George Street and some steaks at nearby Catherine Lombardi.
McLaughlin will be performing in her third show at George Street Playhouse, but this is the first time she has gotten the chance to stay in the city, walk some of its streets and sample a little of its cuisine.
"This is the first time I haven't had to jump in my car and go back to my house in Nyack," she said Wednesday, leaning back on a chair in the rehearsal space at New Brunswick Performing Arts Center as sun splashes into the room. "The commute is basically three hours a day and I just didn't want to do the commute this time. So, I asked to be up - they have artist housing (in the apartments above NBPAC). So I'm actually living here. It's great because I can concentrate on the work, not spend most of my time in a commute."
McLaughlin can use the extra time considering she is originating the part of Sibyl Danforth, the midwife referenced n the title of the novel that has sold more than two million copies since being featured on Oprah's Book Club.
A severe snowstorm breaks out during a routine at-home birth. With no way to contact the outside world, Danforth makes an impossible decision to save the life of a baby. But when the sun rises and the blizzard clears, questions arise about what really occurred that icy Vermont night.
Although the book and its subsequent show explores the murky waters of moral ambiguity, it's nonetheless an exciting opportunity for McLaughlin, who also originated the part of the Angel in Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America." She said she enjoys helping create the first incarnation of a character because she doesn't feel behold to another performer's previous interpretation.
There's no preconceived notions of what the character is supposed to sound like, just the freedom to enter into a creative partnership with Bohjalian in the search for Sibyl's voice.
"I came in and on the first day of rehearsal and we had a complete script, but he has been doing revisions," McLaughlin said. "I'm not a play write, but you can't help but be influenced by the actors' interpretations of the parts. I think you can only affect the writer's perspective on it. You end up showing them something that they might now have seen in the part before, but certainly you're showing them your version of the character, which is always interesting for a writer. I hope it's not too far from what he had in mind."
"Midwives," which runs Jan. 21-Feb. 16, also reunites McLaughlin with her stage husband, John Bolger. This is the third George Street Playhouse production in which they have been paired together. She jokes that she told director David Saint that she will only do a show here if he's cast as her husband.
In reality, though, Bolger and McLaughlin have been at this so long that they can act as each other's safety nets on stage.
"As an actor, it's all about managing fear on stage," she said. "Fear of going up on your lines, ... I mean, the second act is this courtroom scene, but we split away from the courtroom scenes to various scenes in the past and the future. Knowing which one you're splitting to - there's this sense that I'm going to mess this up. And to know that there's somebody on stage that has your back, it just calms you. It's an amazing thing to be on stage with someone who's a real friend."
Bohjalian is a New York Times bestselling author of 21 books, including "The Flight Attendant," now being adapted into an HBO Max limited series, "The Sandcastle Girls" and "Secrets of Eden." His work has been translated into 35 languages and three films.
The cast also features Molly Carden, Michael Cullen, Grace Experience, Ryan George, Monique Robinson, Armand Schultz and Lee Sellars.
Visit www.georgestreetplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.