Joanna Merlin is in no rush to trot out anecdotes from her richly varied career, but when pressed, she comes up with a winner.
On Broadway, in the early 1960s, Laurence Olivier starred in “Becket,” and Merlin played Becket’s mistress, Gwendolen. “I had one scene with him on a bed, where I was playing a lute and singing a Welsh folk song, and he was wrapped around me, tickling my neck,” she says. “And at one point, I just, I went blank, when he got up inside my ear, I think. And he whispered to me, ‘Am I putting you off, my dear?’ ”
Her imitation of his posh accent dissolves into laughter. “Becket” eventually came to the Colonial in Boston, although by then Olivier had switched parts and was playing Henry II.
Now Merlin returns to town, playing the taxing lead role in the first produced full-length play by a writer you’ve likely never heard of, in a bare-bones 99-seat venue at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. It’s very different from her “Becket” experience, but she says the play’s the thing.
“Absence,” by Peter Floyd, tells the story of Helen, age 76 early in the play, who loses her memory and much of her very self to dementia.
‘I’m a senior, and it’s just a very resonant play in terms of my own experience with people who have dementia.’ Joanna Merlin, on her role in “Absence” as an elderly woman who suffers from dementia
“When I read this play, it really touched me very deeply,” Merlin says. “This play takes us inside the mind of the woman who is on this journey. It’s kind of a reversal. We’re seeing everything through her eyes. And it’s illuminating.”
The play is not exactly linear, losing time when Helen does, as dropped memories leave her more and more frustrated and confused.
“I’m a senior, and it’s just a very resonant play in terms of my own experience with people who have dementia,” Merlin says. “I have really dedicated myself to doing film and television these last few years, because I felt that theater was going to take me away from teaching. But this play kind of brought me back. I wanted to give it a voice.”
You may not know Merlin’s name, but you’d probably recognize her face from her recurring performance as Judge Lena Petrovsky on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Her career, though, reaches from Hollywood’s “The Ten Commandments” and the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” to guest shots on current hot shows “Homeland” and “The Good Wife.” She also played an important role backstage as casting director for Broadway legends Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim on “Company,” “Follies,” and other classics.
She bristles when asked to confirm her age: “Don’t print that!” That’s not out of vanity, she explains, rather the fear that the number will make it harder for her to get parts. Suffice to say she is older than Helen. And she’s candid about the difficulties the role poses.
“I never leave the stage for the entire play, and that’s a challenge, but an interesting challenge,” Merlin says. “From a dramatic point of view it’s about moods shifting instantaneously. There’s a lot of rage. And with Helen, there’s a lot of denial, and she’s a fighter. I had to find that deep need for her to stay sane in spite of all the evidence around her. I needed to find that kind of power in myself.”
“Absence” also marks a major turn for 48-year-old Peter Floyd of Brighton, a software developer for a Cambridge company. He’d previously written mostly short works that turned up in festivals.
“I had a nice little hobby going,” he says. “But basically there was this moment when I had to make a decision about being a playwright or not.”
In his mid-40s, he applied to the Boston University MFA playwriting program. “Absence” is the play he submitted to win admission, and after much revision, it also ended up being his thesis play. It’s a deeply personal work, dedicated to his late mother, Alline Wheeler Floyd.
“She was diagnosed with memory loss beginning about 10 years ago, and she had it for a long time until she passed, just about a year ago,” he says. “Obviously, one of the inspirations of this play was my wanting to understand, what was her world like? What was she going through, what were her experiences?
“I don’t want people to come to this play and see this very hard, stern character and think that’s what my mother was like,” he says. “As Helen evolved, she became a very distinct character. But yeah, it’s hard when you see someone you love, someone who raised you, someone who you’re used to seeing as being the one in charge, when you see her break down and lose control of herself, her mind, it’s one of the most grueling things you can see. And everyone knows someone, a parent or a grandparent, who is going through this.”
Friends passed the revised “Absence” script around, and one person it reached was Steven Tabakin, artistic director of Midtown Direct Rep in South Orange, N.J.
“He got in touch and said, ‘I like your play and I’d like to do a reading for it,’ and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Floyd says. “He called me later and said, ‘We’ve got Olympia Dukakis,’ and my jaw hit the floor.”
That reading was Jan. 5. And now, a full production with Merlin in the lead? “What has happened is so overwhelming, so great really, that it’s still just sinking in,” he says.
The rest of the cast includes Anne Gottlieb as Helen’s daughter and Boston University student Beverly Diaz as her granddaughter. Merlin and Gottlieb became friends over the last decade through workshops on the Michael Chekhov acting technique, first as teacher and student and then as colleagues; Merlin’s friendship with director Megan Schy Gleeson, also through Chekhov workshops, led to the offer to play Helen.
“The kind of depth and nuance that [Merlin] offers this role, which is a very, very demanding role, is just gorgeous to watch,” says Gleeson. “She has to be able to embody the disintegration of Helen, the bits and pieces of her that are going away over the course of time. So to be able to mark that and track that in a play that has all these shifts and sudden jerks and changes from one moment to the next, it takes a lot of careful thought and work.”
Any one page from Merlin’s bio would be a full career for someone else.
Her film roles include parts in “All That Jazz,” “Fame,” “The Killing Fields,” and “Mystic Pizza,” in which she played the mother of Julia Roberts’s character. In the original Broadway “Fiddler,” Merlin played Tzeitel, daughter of Zero Mostel’s Tevye.
“Bette Midler was my understudy,” Merlin says. “She baby-sat for my daughters on nights off.”
It’s been a pretty extraordinary career and life.
“I’m happy to have the opportunity at this point in my life to be challenged in this way” with her role in “Absence,” she says. “I have more lines in this play than I think I’ve ever had to learn in my entire life.”