NANTUCKET — As a celebrated actor whose most recent turn on Broadway, playing 8-year-old Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” earned her a Tony Award in 2019, Celia Keenan-Bolger could have her pick of summer theaters. She chose Nantucket’s tiny 120-seat White Heron Theatre, where she has just begun a three-week run in Frederick Knott’s “Dial ‘M’ for Murder.” Recently at the same theater, her husband, actor John Ellison Conlee, wrapped up “The Half,” a solo show about an actor on the skids trying to make a comeback with a one-man “Hamlet.” Why would actors of their caliber choose to perform in such a remote location hundreds of miles from the lights of Broadway? We sat down with Keenan-Bolger and asked her.
Q. This is actually your second season here. Four summers ago, the two of you co-starred in “Private Lives” at the invitation of fellow New York actors [and Sconset summer residents] Jeremy Shamos and Nina Hellman. What brought you back?
A. For so long I have wanted to play adults! As an actor, you have a certain amount of control, but if you are like me and you just really love to work and people keep asking you to play young people, you’re going to go where the work is.
Q. “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Mockingbird” . . .
A. Then if a director — Mark Shanahan — calls and says, “Do you want to play a grown-up in ‘Dial “M” for Murder’?,” you’re like “I sure would!” Also, I would honestly do anything that this theater asked me to do, because it’s such a gift to get to be here. Everybody kept saying, “Just wait, it’s so beautiful!” And then you get here, and it really is like no place I have ever been.
Q. Your Broadway fans are legion, but that’s a somewhat select group. [The HBO series] “The Gilded Age,” now filming its second season, has made you something of a household face — surprisingly, a rather drab, aged face.
A. Oh, I just love it! It’s such a relief! As you get older as an actress [Keenan-Bolger is 44], you start to feel that your currency has to be built on other things than how you look. To get a breakdown for a character that’s just like “not a beauty” — sign me up! A few people in our apartment building in New York City have said, “Oh my God, is your character on ‘The Gilded Age’ going to get a makeover?” And I was like: “She sure isn’t! She’s the housekeeper! That’s what she looks like.”
Q. The role you’ve taken on here is not only adult but ultra-sophisticated.
A. I can’t quite even believe that I’m playing a part [Margot Wendice] that Grace Kelly played — it feels like such big shoes to fill! But I also think that what she does in the movie is just feel worried and gaslit. That’s not so playable for two hours. And so, OK, who is this woman then, if she’s not just having things happen to her the entire time? That has been an interesting exploration.
Q. I tried to read a synopsis of the plot twists, and my mind was just [“kablooey” gesture].
A. It’s actually very easy to follow, very sort of straightforward and delightful and terrible.
Q. Working from the stage script, how do you compensate for Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic contribution?
A. You have to sort of say, “Okay then, what is this as a theatrical piece? Why is this interesting if we don’t have the visual storytelling?” It means that the characters have to be drawn in a much more complex and nuanced way. We’ve been talking a lot about what it is to get to be inside of something where people are not as they appear. And the fun — even when people are doing terrible things — is in thinking about how the characters behave in one way but actually, who they are in life is very different. There are all kinds of colors, and that brings out comedy and pathos and tragedy. It’s not just a play about murder.
Q. I was surprised to see White Heron promoting the show as “an evening full of laughs.”
A. This is like one of those ‘50s genre pieces that have a sort of comedic element that isn’t even necessarily intended. If people are coming to see summer theater, you don’t want to just make it an evening of doom and gloom.
Q. In the past couple of years, we’ve all grown accustomed to seeking entertainment in private, holing up with our devices.
A. We’re in an interesting moment for theater. During the pandemic we were being asked to process a lot of things by ourselves, and options like Netflix and Hulu became very, very important to us as a means of not just escape but something for our brains.
Q. And for human connection, even at a remove.
A. Exactly. There is something special about being in a theater now. Regardless of what the material is — even if it’s something like “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” or some silly comedy — we are trying to learn about how to exist in the world again, how to be with one another and laugh together, feel feelings together.
Interview was edited and condensed.
DIAL ‘M’ FOR MURDER
Presented by White Heron Theatre Company, 5 N. Water St., Nantucket. Through Aug. 16. Tickets start at $25. 508-825-5268, www.whiteherontheatre.org
Sandy MacDonald is on Twitter @sandymacdonald.