Uma Thurman has carved out a three-decade career in Hollywood by combining go-for-broke fierceness with preternatural poise and a formidable intellect. The actress, who was born in Boston and grew up in Amherst, has been known as the sultry femme fatale in “Pulp Fiction,” an indie queen who rejected easy-money blockbusters in order to play complex roles in films like “Henry & June” and “Hysterical Blindness,” and the butt-kicking, sword-wielding star of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” diptych.
But as an over-40 actress in Hollywood, Thurman has also faced the prospect of dwindling roles worthy of her talent. So she began to look elsewhere for meaty characters. Two years ago, that led her to take on a different challenge — headlining a new play on Broadway, “The Parisian Woman,” written by Beau Willimon, creator of the American version of “House of Cards.” It was her first stage role in nearly 20 years.
In a phone interview, Thurman, 49, says the psychic pressure of doing live theater and carrying a new play with your name on the marquee was especially difficult — especially when said play is greeted with middling reviews.
“Getting through the full-length run of a Broadway show is Herculean. It was like an initiation-by-fire,” Thurman says, while driving back from rehearsal at Tanglewood, where she appeared last week as the narrator in the world premiere of “Penelope,” by the late composer Andre Previn, with text by Tom Stoppard. “It’s difficult, the whole sort of brutality of ‘is Broadway going to accept you or repel you?’ You know, if you can make it on Broadway, you can make it anywhere. It could break a human being, especially doing it for the first time.
“But it was also a great experience in a lot of ways, and I’m very glad that I did it,” says the actress.
Despite the bumpy ride, Thurman remains undaunted, and she’s heading back to the stage again, this time in the nurturing confines of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, not far from her “old stomping grounds,” playing the widowed Mrs. Alving in a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s late 19th-century drama “Ghosts.” The play, directed by Carey Perloff in a translation by Paul Walsh, runs July 31 through Aug. 18.
The project came about when Thurman and Williamstown artistic director Mandy Greenfield hit it off after meeting through a mutual friend. They began discussing potential projects, and Greenfield would send her new plays to read. But nothing stuck. Then Greenfield asked how she felt about Ibsen and “Ghosts,” and Thurman’s ears immediately perked up.
“Ibsen’s work, having studied it in high school a bit, was one of the things that drew me to want to be an actress,” she says. “Ibsen’s women are so fascinating and deep and complicated and truly require every scrap of talent one has to get through them.”
When “Ghosts” premiered in 1882, it was greeted with scorn and disgust, denounced because of its candid discussions of marital infidelity, sexuality, venereal disease, euthanasia, and the liberation of women. Moreover, Ibsen had offered a scathing indictment of Norwegian society’s oppressive social strictures and its moral decay to protect those social norms.
Set in a country house, the play centers on the widowed Mrs. Alving, who is trying to free herself from the ghosts of her past. Despite her husband’s philandering, she had sought to preserve the troubled marriage and prevent scandal from tainting her family. She had even sent away her son, Oswald, to boarding school when he was young in order to protect him from the reality of his father’s debauched life.
As the play begins, Mrs. Alving is preparing to open an orphanage she’s built in her deceased husband’s name. Oswald, now grown, has returned home after years living abroad and fashioning a life as a bohemian artist, but he has a couple of troubling secrets to share with his mother. Meanwhile, Pastor Manders, who was Mrs. Alving’s paramour many years earlier before he forced her to return to her husband, is overseeing the construction of the orphanage.
Director Perloff points out that Ibsen created Mrs. Alving as a response to the scandal provoked by “A Doll’s House” two years before. At the end of that play, Nora Helmer famously walks out on her family and her oppressive marriage.
“To some extent, Mrs. Alving is the answer to Nora, because Mrs. Alving tried to leave her home and leave her husband, but was forced back again,” Thurman says. “So Mrs. Alving is the result of a failed attempt to escape an abusive and destructive household.”
Since her husband’s death, Mrs. Alving has had an awakening. She’s yearning for independence and rejects the opinions, customs, and social mores of the time. “She’s a character who’s in a sort of spiritual crisis,” Thurman says. “She’s doubting the teachings of the church and questioning all of the conventions of society — that a wife has a duty to stay with her husband no matter what. So she’s rejecting society in some way and is being treated [by the Pastor] as if she’s falling out of line with social norms. That must have been quite threatening at the time.”
Perloff says “Ghosts” also examines the “ferocious attachment” that a mother feels for her son, but also “tragically how little she really knows him.”
“In one sense, she made this ultimate sacrifice to save him, but in another sense she abandoned him. It’s so complex,” Thurman says. “That relationship is one of the things that’s so relevant and eternal about the play.”
Indeed, Perloff says, “Uma understands the complexity of what it means to be a mother. She has three children who she’’s passionate about. When we started talking, I knew right away this was not going to be an abstract struggle to her.”
He says “Ghosts” examines the friction between holding onto our ideals and beliefs versus telling the truth. “Ibsen was really probing that conflict — the danger of telling the truth coupled with the necessity of telling the truth.”
“How much of the truth is healthy for a person and how many secrets can someone live with without being sickened by them?” Thurman says. “These things are things that I think everybody struggles with.”
Indeed, in early 2018 the actress told her own very dark truth, in a revelatory New York Times interview, about being sexually assaulted by her onetime champion, disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, her anger at his industry enablers, and suffering lasting injuries in a car accident on the set of “Kill Bill” after feeling pressured by Tarantino to perform the stunt herself.
While she acknowledges that letting out the truth was cathartic, she insists she doesn’t want anyone to pity her. That Zen outlook can no doubt be traced to her upbringing by a father, Robert Thurman, who’s one of the world’s foremost Buddhist scholars and a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” she says, “and I think I’m probably most fortunate for having the courage to just try to move forward, try to take another step, and try not to let things overcome me — to be brave.”
At Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, Williamstown, July 31-Aug. 18. Tickets $75, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.