Five Burning Questions with Mary Jane Star Susan Pourfar
October 25th, 2017
by Josh Ferri
Obie Award, Theatre World Award, and 2012 Clarence Derwent Award winner Susan Pourfar stars opposite Carrie Coon in the New York premiere of Amy Herzog's new play Mary Jane at New York Theatre Workshop. The drama follows a single mother (Coon) raising a child with cerebral palsy, and Susan plays two characters with sick children, Brianne (a Facebook friend and mom whose child has similar diagnosis) and Chaya (an Orthodox Jewish mother whose child is hospitalized with Coon's son). BroadwayBox caught up with Susan to discuss the new show, how she chooses projects, and where she finds unlikely Scandal fans.
1. This show feels remarkable, a female story told by an all-female cast and nearly all-female creative team. Did it feel different in the room creating this piece?
I had no idea how much I carried around an internal pressure, that I’ve totally normalized, about how I’m seen. How much I see myself in terms of the “male gaze.”
I hadn’t given it a thought until I was in this room of all women. There was, for me (I can’t speak for the whole cast), a perceptible shift; a feeling of “this is who I am; this is how I look today; this is what you’re gonna get,” that was very freeing.
I have to admit: I was also operating on sleep deprivation (I started rehearsal with a five-month-old son), so that may have played into it. But yes, it felt different. The feeling was of acceptance. Primarily self-acceptance.
2. What’s an example of a time when you surprised yourself with your own strength?
Every time I lift my 25 pound kid out of his crib.
Each time I begin previews for a new play; it feels like going into unchartered waters. I love the feeling of not knowing how something is going to land for an audience, but it always surprises me— the strength and courage it requires to leap in front of an audience for the first time.
3. Shondaland fans know you as Becky, Puck's killer ex, on Scandal. Where’s the strangest or most surprisingly place you’ve been recognized by a Scandal fan?
I’m co-teaching a class in a public high school right now and when I walked into the room for our first session—all prepared to do a meet-n-greet and theater games—a young woman shouted at me: “Miss! You shot the President!”
It took me a second to understand what she was talking about and then I realized: Scandal fan!
4. What’s your process when you’re giving audiences a glimpse into a real world they may not know—be it this or Tribes? Do you do much research or mainly rely on the text and the director?
I do read around a subject I’m not familiar with and I do a bit of research on my own, but both in Amy Herzog’s beautiful play, Mary Jane and in Tribes, by Nina Raine, I find that the role and the world are quite fully realized in the text. So the research helps me personalize the work, but everything the audience needs to know is already present, in the text.
5. Your resume is so interesting. What’s your criteria for choosing a project? How do you know something is right for you and when it is not?
My absolute favorite thing is when comedy and tragedy co-exist. That feels like real life to me.
Amy Herzog has a real gift for mining the humor and the pathos of everyday life within a circumstance (a mom care-giving for a child with multiple needs in Mary Jane) that is very stressful. But Amy, and the character of Mary Jane by extension, doesn’t lean into the grief; she allows it to co-exist with a lot of very funny and human details.
I think Kenny Lonergan is a genius at that as well. I re-read Lobby Hero recently. His characters are walking this tightrope between real pain and laugh-out-loud comedy. Manchester-by-the-Sea for all its pain, had so many human, deeply funny moments. I was laughing and crying as I read that script.
I want to work with people who make me laugh and cry!
See Susan Pourfar in 'Mary Jane' at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop through October 29.