There's a moment in Mrs. Klein where Beverly May attempts to burst through the stone wall of premises and hypotheses to connect to her hurting daughter, played by Susan Sargeant. The two are sharing a bottle of wine but not much else, and May reaches over to pluck a piece of cork that is floating in her child's glass. Years of unexpressed maternal concern are driving this tiny gesture, but the masterful May doesn't freight it with lumbering, agonized significance. It's played spontaneously, with little apparent forethought, but immediately afterward, when we see a look of mild surprise and sadness spread over May's face, we understand. Melanie Klein has discovered something about herself at the same moment audiences have found it. That's called sublime acting.
Dallas audiences are privileged that May has done more of it over the past year, thanks to Sargeant and WingSpan Theatre offering her the plum parts she deserves (she was equally crisp and poignant in a very different role, an illiterate Appalachian woman who's dying, in Grace & Glorie). As May herself notes, she's not exactly out there working the auditions. With four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a husband she's been married to for 48 years, she manages to keep busy while not onstage.
"I have arrived at a stage in life where I don't just want to hang around the dressing room and wait for my cue," May notes. "The role has to be right, something worth me showing up to the theater for. I feel fortunate to have been able to afford this rather haughty attitude, but it's always been a part of my work. Even when I was in New York, if I had to be separated from Bill [her husband] for a period of time, there had to be a good reason for it."
When May talks about New York, she's referring to a 10-year period beginning in 1976 of lead and supporting roles, on Broadway and Off-Broadway. She stepped in to replace Marian Seldes in Equus for her first stint on the Great White Way, and went on to act opposite Tom Conti, Glenda Jackson, Alec McGowan, John Lithgow, Mary Tyler Moore, and Sean Penn, to name just a few. The woman who got her master's at the Yale School of Drama and taught at Smith won an Obie Award for My Sister in This House, an updating of Genet's The Maids.
"We lived on the Upper West Side and took the subways to work," May remembers. "We had our time in New York. But Broadway was changing. They weren't producing the straight plays, because there was too much risk for the money. I don't sing and dance, and it was too late in my career to learn. My husband got offered a job at SMU [he lectures on medical and professional ethics], so we moved down here."
May arrived in 1985 and was promptly cast by Adrian Hall in the Dallas Theater Center production of You Can't Take It With You. "Breaking into a local scene can be difficult," she remarks. "I've heard some actors say it's harder to work into a regional theater company than get a part in New York." But she became a member of Hall's regular ensemble of actors, winning a fistful of Dallas Critics Forum Awards for the kinds of roles in big-budget stagings that had dried up in New York City. She says she's happy that current DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger is casting more local actors (she has worked for him on a couple of occasions), because "it gives audiences a feeling of proprietorship. A city can truly feel like the theater is theirs, because everyone has favorites and comes back to see them. It's more than just another production moving through the Majestic Theatre."
From her perspective, theater is often a difficult life no matter where you live--more of a cause, really. She says the Dallas artists she has worked with awe her.
"That theater struggles along is an enormous accomplishment," she says. "I watch these people who're willing to sacrifice and work like demons to keep live theater as an option for the public. That means we see shows in these charming small spaces [like the Bath House] that you wouldn't get in larger places. They're shows about ideas, and it takes intelligence to watch them." She pauses. "I think audiences are not asked to do that often enough."