Mary Steenburgen saw her first play at a community theatre in Arkansas where she grew up. It was the Music Man, performed by a travelling company and she was instantly captivated.
“I literally could not breathe,” she said in an interview with the Gazette at her home in Chilmark. “I was so transported by it, and it meant so much to me.”
Ms. Steenburgen grew up in a home with “fairly modest means,” and found refuge from family and life challenges in the audience, on the stage and in the wings of the community theatre.
“It gave me a sense of belonging,” she said.
From then on theatre became “a thing to dream about and think about. It gave me dreams that I might not otherwise have had.”
After an acclaimed theatre, film and television career, Ms. Steenburgen still returns to community theatre to perform, to applaud and to support. This Tuesday, July 2, she and her husband Ted Danson will star in the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Love Letters written by A.R. Gurney at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center. The production is a fundraiser benefitting the ongoing renovation of the Vineyard Playhouse.
Ms. Steenburgen and Mr. Danson, who may be most recognizable for the role of Sam Malone in the sitcom Cheers, are the only two actors in the play. It is comprised of a series of love notes written over a span of 50 years. The play has been performed countless times since it first opened in 1988. The actors read the letters while seated side by side at a table. Mr. Gurney states in his instructions for the play’s production that the actors refrain from meeting each other’s eyes during the performance and not over-dramatize the letter reading. He recommends no rehearsal and asks that the acting company hold just one audition for the roles.
Mr. Danson said his mother and father exchanged letters throughout their relationship, which provided a reference point for the play. “That is something that paved the way for this,” Ms. Steenburgen added. “It opened our hearts to that idea.”
Mr. Danson laments the fact that the written communication we engage in today are emails and texts, which are not reread and savored as they are in this play.
The husband and wife pair have performed the play before. “The tenderness we feel toward each other is probably a nice thing for this [play],” Ms. Steenburgen said. The actors are completely at ease in each other’s company, and often finish each other’s sentences, or interrupt each other before apologizing in earnest.
In this play, the screenwriting steals the show, not the acting, Mr. Danson said. “Our job is to get out of its way and let people hear the letters . . . It’s really his work. It’s about his words. Just about anybody could do this and do a good job of it because that’s what a wonderful play it is.”
Ms. Steenburgen said her experience as an actor doesn’t prevent the usual stage jitters. “When you’re up there, you’re just any old actor thinking I hope I prepared, how loud do I have to project . . . All those things are the same no matter how old you are or who you are.”
While Ms. Steenburgen is a member of the Atlantic Theater Company’s ensemble in New York city, it will be Mr. Danson’s first play in two years and he’s nervous, he said. “You have to trust yourself and you have to trust the material,” he said. Mr. Danson still acts on screen extensively, most recently in the series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
“Part of what I love about theatre is that it’s like driving a car fast . . . it makes your heart pound. . . it’s terrifying and thrilling,” Ms. Steenburgen said.
When they are on the Island, Mr. Danson unwinds completely while Ms. Steenburgen busies herself with songwriting and other hobbies such as learning the accordion from an Irish musician via the internet.
“He’s better at truly relaxing,” she said.
Mr. Danson agreed. “I like to have her working in the background while I nap.” He added that his metric of a good vacation is “how many naps and how many books I’ve read.”
The couple originally spent time on the Island with the Clintons, who are old friends of Ms. Steenburgen. At first they came to visit not to buy property.
“I don’t even remember consciously saying, let’s look at real estate,” Ms. Steenburgen said. The couple were married 19 years ago in their current home in Chilmark, in a field on the hill next to their house. It was the first time they had brought together their families from previous marriages. They have four children between them and one granddaughter, 18-month-old Clementine.
When they had first looked at the house, they remembered sitting down to ruminate and “a couple of deer bounced around,” Mr. Danson said. “Bunnies and deer,” they said together. “And our kids said, ‘get it,’” Ms. Steenburgen said. “It was kind of incredibly old fashioned, but very sweet. We kept waiting for buyer’s remorse, but it never happened. This was the place where our family blended.”
Over the years, their kids have bused tables at State Road Restaurant, bagged groceries at Cronig’s Market and worked as counselors at Pam Benjamin’s summer camp, Sense of Wonder. This summer Ms. Steenburgen will host a crew of musicians and composers to write the music for Las Vegas, a movie
premiering in November and starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Mor
gan Freeman and Kevin Kline.
Though they can only carve out two months of Vineyard time right now, their dream is to spend six months on the Island each year. Their investment in the Island community is substantial and they believe in supporting the year-round community.
The two say they feel most “known” here on the Island.
“It is a place where people have got to know us not as famous people but as neighbors, friends, parents . . . I really treasure our friendships here because they have substance,” Ms. Steenburgen said.
In other places, such as Los Angeles, where the couple spends most of the year, she said fame causes people to “not know you,” and instead project their idea of what being famous must be like. “They put onto you what they think fame would be like,” assuming that the couple has time for them, or that they are arrogant or resemble the characters they play on screen. These misconceptions can pervade their interactions with other people.
Not on Martha’s Vineyard, though. “This is one of the places in life where we allow ourselves to be known, and people got to know us as we are — as the very ordinary people that we are,” Ms. Steenburgen said.
The Island is more low-key than some other destinations frequented by influential people, they agreed. “I think it’s because everyone here is here for one reason, and that’s because they love Martha’s Vineyard. They are not here to be seen or to say they were here,” Mr. Danson said.
“The worst thing I can imagine would be an Island full of celebrities,” Ms. Steenburgen said. Instead, Islanders represent a mixture of people, and “there’s beauty wherever that occurs,” she said.
They both praised the high school’s performing arts center, calling it an “amazing stage . . . the community should be so proud of that.”
The couple stresses that the production of Love Letters is a fund-raising event and therefore the higher ticket prices are not representative of the usual programming at the Vineyard Playhouse.
“Nobody needs to think, I don’t want to hang out there because it’s only for rich people,” she said.
Both have been frequent patrons of the playhouse, as well as performers. Eight years ago they performed in a staged reading of The Shore in the Monday Night series. It was directed by Claudia Weill.
“The Vineyard Playhouse is this incredible gift to the Island,” Mr. Danson said.
They love the playhouse’s historic building and the organization’s dedication to children. “It’s something that inspires people on this Island,” Ms. Steenburgen said. The renovation will allow the playhouse to take on year-round programming, which the actors find particularly noble.
“It opens your horizons when you watch people being creative,” Mr. Danson said.
The Vineyard Playhouse has already sold about 550 tickets for the show. There are 200 tickets remaining. Call 508-687-2452 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.