WILLIAMSTOWN — Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina aren’t husband and wife, but they may have finally found their better theatrical halves.
Molina, a three-time Tony Award nominee, and Kaczmarek, who earned seven Emmy nominations for playing frazzled mother Lois in “Malcolm in the Middle,” have become each other’s go-to stage partners of late. Over the past few years, they’ve done three radio dramas together — Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” for the BBC, and Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” and Brian Friel’s “Fathers and Sons” for LA Theatre Works. Next year, they’ll team up on a staging of Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
But right now, the duo is hard at work on the American premiere of Australian playwright Tom Holloway’s “And No More Shall We Part,” which begins previews at the Williamstown Theatre Festival on Wednesday.
Seated across a table in a rehearsal hall, alongside director Anne Kaufman, the two attest to the bond they’ve forged over the past few years on these various projects.
“When you discover a connection with someone and you make a friendship with them, and you think this could be a potentially good working friendship as well, you latch onto it,” says Molina, 63, who brought Kaczmarek, 60, on board the project, suggesting her to Williamstown artistic director Mandy Greenfield.
“You reach an age as an actor where you just know you’re going to work well with someone because you have a similar sensibility, you like what they do, and there’s a mutual respect,” he says. “So you develop a kind of shorthand. When we were doing ‘A View From the Bridge,’ we discovered that we really get each other. And she makes me laugh.”
“We’re the Lunt and Fontanskis,” quips Kaczmarek, who’s of Polish ancestry, self-deprecatingly comparing herself and Molina to the fabled early 20th century husband-and-wife stage acting duo, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
“The low-rent Lunts!” Molina bellows, as the two erupt in a fit of giggles.
The soothing balm of laughter in the rehearsal room helps Molina and Kaczmarek offset the intense, difficult subject matter of “And No More Shall We Part.” The drama, which alternates between the past and present, centers on a long-married couple, Don and Pam, facing the late stage of an illness that Pam has been battling for years. When Pam comes home from the doctor one day to inform her husband that she’s terminal and her physicians can do no more to treat her, she tells Don that she has decided to end her life before more pain and suffering set in. The play grapples with questions of death, dying with dignity, and assisted suicide.
“He just looks at this [decision] as her wanting to leave him. I think Don would really want Pam to say, ‘Oh, darling, I will go through the depths of hell and agonizing cancer to be with you ’til I draw my last breath,’ ” Kaczmarek says. “But she thinks, ‘No, the way I’m going to show you I love you is by not putting you through this ordeal and saving you the money and expense and heartbreak of seeing me ravaged by this disease.’ ”
Molina is connecting with “And No More Shall We Part” on a bone-deep level because, he acknowledges quietly, “this play is very close to my own experience.” His wife of 30 years, Jill Gascoine, a novelist and actress who was Britain’s first leading female TV detective, suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s.
“That’s one of the reasons why it was important for me to do this,” he says. “It puts a lot of demons to bed, doing this play. I was a bit coy about it a few years ago. But I’m honest about it now. So this is a way of kind of giving back on her experience and what she’s dealing with, to give it some value.”
Molina told the Guardian newspaper that he looked after his wife at their home in Los Angeles for four years, but her disease progressively worsened, and it got to the point where he “was doing more harm than good.” He says she now resides in a long-term-care facility.
While the process of working on the play has been emotional, Molina says, “This is what we do. This is our job. At the moment, as we’re going through this play, both of us, Jane and I, get emotional. We get upset. But we’ll reach a point by the time we’re playing [the characters] when we won’t be feeling that. Our job will then be to make the audience feel that.”
Kaczmarek acknowledges it’s been an emotionally fraught first couple weeks of rehearsal but hopes the experience also has been healing for her cohort. “He was having some trouble at the start. He had a couple of really rough days,” she says, in a follow-up phone interview. “But I know he’s on the other side of it now. It’s hard because he remembers who his wife was before her illness.”
It’s also been a heavy experience for Kaczmarek, and she admits she’s had to suppress certain impulses that are more common in television acting. “This director, Anne Kaufman, is very unsentimental. She’s constantly admonishing me for crying,” she says. “She reminds me that it’s really about keeping the husband calm and knowing what I’m going to do and about making sure that he’s OK.”
“So it’s really good to have Anne telling me to suck it up and not let it out,” she says, with a laugh.
Kaczmarek, a Yale School of Drama graduate, hadn’t done a play in four years. “This is just like [theater] boot camp. This play is really calling upon different facets of myself as an actress that I haven’t used in a while.”
It’s also a welcome return to Williamstown for Kaczmarek, where she apprenticed as a non-Equity company actor in the summer of 1981, appearing in “The Greeks” with Christopher Reeve, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Burton, her former Yale roommate who’s still a close friend and a Festival regular. Kaczmarek returned in 1988 as a professional in founding artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos’s final production, “The Legend of Oedipus.”
“It’s wonderful to be back after all these years. We’re at an age now in which we’re really passing the baton onto a next generation of actors, and that’s been, for me, very rewarding and satisfying. Blythe Danner and Maria Tucci, the regulars here, we sat at their heel and just absorbed everything that we could from them,” Kaczmarek says. “So to think that you’re kind of an elder statesman now, you want these kids to know how great a life in theater can be.”
And No More Shall We Part
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At the Nikos Stage, Williamstown, Aug. 10-21. Tickets: $53-$58, 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.