In person, if you didn’t know her, Deborah Gilmour Smyth wouldn’t strike you as a performer. Soft-spoken and humble, she calls little attention to herself. But onstage, Smyth blooms into someone else, literally and figuratively, and the offstage person disappears.
She doesn’t like to talk about her acting. She’s done it for four decades and has learned that, like Toto pulling back the Wizard’s curtain, “talking can diminish the experience.” She’d much rather “you come and we partake in the story together.”
That’s why I was glad she agreed to talk about her outstanding performance as Vivian Bearing in Lamb’s Players’ Wit.
In 1999, Deborah and husband Robert Smyth, artistic director of Lamb’s, went to New York to see some shows. The day they arrived, Margaret Edson’s Wit won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. They had planned to see it but didn’t have tickets. So, Deborah said, “Why not?” She called the off-Broadway theater, somehow managed two seats for the hottest show in town, and they went that night.
In 90 compressed minutes, Wit gives a frank portrayal of a woman dying of ovarian cancer. Vivian Bearing, renowned scholar of John Donne’s poetry, has lived the life of an intellectual. “I am, in short, a force,” she tells us. As her time slips away, she faces the life and death questions Donne raises in his poems and sermons.
“The play kind of washed over us. Vivian’s so smart, almost pragmatically so, and always speaks her mind. In the end she discovers kindness. She didn’t know she needed it. All the things she thought she should hold onto no longer mattered.
“At the time, I didn’t see it as a role I had to play. I was much younger, and young women don’t often think of playing older women. Also, when an off-Broadway show becomes a hit, there’s no way Lamb’s will get it for a few years.
“I knew I wanted to do that role someday. It was one of those ‘someday’ things.”
When Lamb’s got the rights and she got the role, it was “hard to get inside that mind at first.” Vivian hasn’t an ounce of sentimentality or outward need for approval. In many ways she’s a self-made fortress. “Though I admire intelligence a great deal, I relate to things emotionally.”
To become Vivian, Deborah read the text with the concentration, and eye for nuance, one gives a love letter. Every word, every comma, mattered.
“I love imagining what the character is going through, and I love the work of the learning.”
“The text is the key to understanding the core of her person. Vivian, as the play says, is no cupcake. She’s a brilliant, uncompromising scholar at the top of her field. She’s fearlessly direct. Wit flows freely from her tongue, and her language is wonderfully rich and dense.
“That was my challenge. I wanted the words to fly, to have the essence of reality: fast, clean, and clear. There is a point in memorization when the text becomes a part of you, a magic place. That was my goal....
“It wasn’t about me doing her. It was about me doing my homework to bring her to the mind and the heart of the audience.”
Part of that process involved having to shave her head. Her father, Deane, who died when she was 27, was bald (“He hasn’t seen most of what I’ve done”). At the barber shop, after the razor pared away the shaving cream, she looked in a mirror and saw “my dad’s head! What a great connection that made! That and to see your own head for the first time.”
Another connection. Three of the most significant women in her life passed away before her eyes. One was her mother, Martha, which was “such a privilege — you brought me into this world, now I watch you depart.
“I don’t want to be glib about it, but people told me, ‘You will love playing a post-menopausal, bald-headed woman’ — and they were right!”
Walking onstage without hair or make-up, and only interlocking hospital gowns for a costume, brought a surprise. “Such a lack of pretension. There’s this great freedom. It’s just, here she is. And that was my aim: let her be herself, and stay out of the way....
“I didn’t have to think about myself at all,” in part because Vivian’s so busy. “She throws up, loses it several times, gets angry — what a very male play to do!
“Also, she fights an impossible opponent, despairs, and is met with kindness. It’s a complete human journey, beginning to end — to beginning. Every performance, I reveled in meeting this brilliant, broken woman.”
During the run, Lamb’s had matinee and evening shows on Saturday. They fed the actors during the break. The talk was never mundane: “Serious things: what one wants to do in one’s life; what matters, what doesn’t. Dying and death came up often.” The play inspired the questions one asks from a sleeping bag on a summer night, gazing at the heavens.
Actors warm up differently. Each night after she shaved her head, she ran through lines vocally. At ten minutes to curtain she speed-ran some speeches for five minutes.
“I needed to make sure that my body, lips, tongue, and mind felt sharp and ready for her words, her thoughts, her surprises.”
She used the last five minutes to “go empty: clean out, pace and move — no brain.”
At every performance, Smyth stopped just before she went on. She looked up and said, “Thank you. Thank you that I get to do this.” Then she “walked into the ride.”