Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

2014 Tony Awards Predictions: Best Lead Actress in a Play

Note: My personal rankings are listed in order from best to worst, with #1 being my favorite, while predictions for the actual winners will be in orange.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A LEADING ACTRESS IN A PLAY

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1. CHERRY JONES
The Glass Menagerie

2. TYNE DALY
Mothers and Sons

3. AUDRA MCDONALD
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON
A Raisin in the Sun

ESTELLE PARSONS
The Velocity of Autumn

Shoulda been here (like, really shoulda been here): Rebecca Hall, Machinal

First, a confession: The nominees had just been announced when The Velocity of Autumn announced its closing a few days later. Though I could have seen it, I chose not to. Nothing against Estelle Parsons — who received fantastic reviews and who was brilliant in August: Osage County — but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. And though this is the woman’s fifth Tony nomination, she still won’t take home the prize. People just did not like this play.

Sorry, Ms. Jackson (c’mon, I had to), but you shan’t win this one either. As wonderful as she surely is as Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (and as much as I love her husband), it’s just not in the cards. This is LaTanya  Richardson Jackson‘s first nomination.

Let’s be clear: Audra McDonald is going to win this award and she will deserve it. In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, she is Billie Holiday, meaning that when she opens her mouth, you swear to god that a ghost of a legend had descended on the Circle in the Square stage. You can actually feel a sharp audience-wide intake of breath as all realize the uncanny performance they’re about to witness. The classically trained soprano with vibrato for days has been transformed into a lower-ranged, more leisurely soloist. Holiday’s distinct melancholy sound replete with idiosyncratic phrasing and vocal catches is recreated perfectly. And as the booze flows, tracks rake arms and a tiny dog is cuddled, McDonald offers a stunningly sensitive portrayal of a declining diva– despite the ghoulish, unrealistic script by Lanie Robertson. That she can sustain such a demanding performance for 90 minutes (no intermission) is a McDonald miracle. But because at the end of the day it’s still an impersonation, and because she already has five Tonys and Lady Day was labeled a play just so that she can have won a Tony in every major category (lead and supporting in both musicals and plays), she’s been placed lower on my list. Audra, you are the Meryl of (musical) theatre. But, really, let’s spread the wealth.

Perhaps because I saw her the most recently, I went a little crazy and put Tyne Daly in #2 for her work in Mothers and Sons. As Katherine Gerard, Daly is the austere and embittered titular mother of a gay son, dead for these twenty years. She’s guarded and defensive, lashing out with a sharp and angry wit when prodded, and then abruptly shutting down into an overwhelming silence when a poster of her son appears. What’s most remarkable about her performance is that the best parts of it aren’t on the page. Terrence McNally has little sympathy for the mother who never visited her son while he was dying from AIDS, so Daly mines emotional reservoirs of her own. She excels in the quiet moments alone on stage, swiftly shuffling through old photos and, stricken by an image, suddenly losing her breath, her face crumpling in pain from the unspeakable loss of a child. Or when the young child of her boyfriend’s son insists that she can’t cry anymore if she is to be his grandmother, the expression on her face — and the softened, if still stilted voice — is such a mixture of love and sorrow and regret, that it’s impossible not to treat her with the regard that the playwright near refuses her. It’s the least showy performance here, but it’s a worthy one.

But then there’s Cherry Jones in The Glass Menagerie. The perennial high school read has suffered more than its fair share of bad productions, and though this one is fussily formatted with a concept that can be cloying, Jones effortlessly works around it all. Finding new shades of sympathy for a character usually relegated to a narrowly-defined foolish and domineering matriarch, her Amanda Wingfield is presumptuous, but well-meaning; nagging, but deeply caring. So rarely is Amanda played with any kind of real compassion, that Jones’s portrayal immediately strikes an astonishing, welcome chord. Her heart breaks for her children, and ours for her — even if she is acting with a capital A. (But so is Neil Patrick Harris.) This is her fifth Tony with two previous wins, and though she has the potential to spoil Audra’s evening, it’s unlikely.

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