Profile: Naomi Jacobson Lends Laughter and Innocence to ‘The Remains’ at Studio Theatre

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Naomi Jacobson.
Naomi Jacobson.

The Remains, a brand new one-act play that’s been generating rave reviews since its opening at Studio Theatre two weeks ago, is a witty and wise meditation on marriage.

By turns funny and sad, this contemporary take on drawing-room comedy looks at the power of disappointment and weighs the wisdom of perseverance against the ease of bailing out.

As such, it’s a commentary on marriage in all its forms, gay or straight, short or long, imaginary or real.

In this particular play, the marriage is gay. The handsome couple consists of Theo and Kevin, two guys who met at graduate school and married as soon as it was legal to do so.

But now, after 17 years together, the two have decided to divorce. And they intend to announce this news at a dinner party attended by Theo’s parents and Kevin’s sister.

For Naomi Jacobson, doyenne of the DC stage, the role of Trish—the quintessentially Jewish mother even if she isn’t all that Jewish—is a natural one.

I asked Jacobson—who has won plenty of accolades in her career, including three Helen Hayes awards and 15 nominations—why she chose The Remains.   

“Three reasons,” she said, ticking them off. “First, it was a chance to work with David Muse again.” Muse, who has been Artistic Director of Studio for the last eight seasons, was previously Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he and Jacobson collaborated on Henry V.

“Second, Studio Theatre,” she said, adding that she had performed at virtually every other professional theater in DC, but never at Studio.

And third, the play itself.

“I loved The Remains from the minute I read the script,” she explained. “It reminded me of the ancient Greek dramas at Epidaurus. It provides catharsis, which is a form of healing, a way of making the audience feel emotionally whole. That’s what all great theater is supposed to do.”

The play also holds a lot of personal resonance. “It’s about a long-time marriage, and a reminder of how difficult it can be to keep a marriage together despite the shifting priorities, the changes, and betrayals,” she said.

Her own parents’ marriage had to overcome similar obstacles. “But their commitment survived.”

I asked her how it felt to be cast as the protagonist’s mother. “There’s not much choice at my age,” she laughed. Besides, she added, playing someone else’s mother on stage—in this play the someone else is Theo—gives her a chance to explore some of the difficulties of parenthood.

She also loved the fact that the play was a world premiere, and that Ken Urban, the playwright, was directly involved in the Studio production, rewriting lines right up to the opening.

When the play did open, the audience response was overwhelming.

“I didn’t realize how funny it was until I heard the laughter,” she said, still sounding surprised.

I was surprised that she was surprised, since I think of Jacobson as a comic genius, someone able to evoke roars of laughter with little more than a roll of the eyes or a minor grimace.

However, there’s a lot of humor in the writing. And the role itself is both innocent and poignant, naughty and prim, as Jacobson—along with the others—admits to the hanky-panky of the past.

Having seen her recently in Becoming Dr. Ruth—an incredibly demanding solo performance at Theater J—I marveled at the difference.

“I’d never done a one-woman show before Becoming Dr. Ruth,” she reflected, “so I was terrified at the beginning. But the audience became my acting partner.”

The Remains, by contrast, is much easier. “We have a wonderful group of professional actors,” she added, “and that allows us to bounce things back and forth with each other on the stage.”

In fact, there are some amazing verbal volleys between her and Len, her long-suffering husband (played by Greg Mullavey), and between her and her son, Theo (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is constantly embarrassed by his outspoken mother.

Naomi Jacobson (Trish), Maulik Pancholy (Kevin), Glenn Fitzgerald (Theo), and Greg Mullavey (Len) in The Remains. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Naomi Jacobson (Trish), Maulik Pancholy (Kevin), Glenn Fitzgerald (Theo), and Greg Mullavey (Len) in The Remains. Photo by Teresa Wood.

On the other hand, there is a surprising tenderness in her bond with Kevin (Maulik Pancholy). Even more touching is the bond with Andrea, the floozy sister (Danielle Skraastad) who, it turns out, is more like Jacobson’s character, Trish, than either would have guessed.

The bonding onstage is reflected offstage too. According to Jacobson, that’s unique to Washington, which is the third largest theater city in the U.S.

[Read John Stoltenberg’s thoughtful review of The Remains here.]

She attributes the closeness of the DC acting community to the fact that there are enough shows to allow actors to live and work in the same place. “We’ve all performed together. We get the most amazing writers and directors. And since they come here, we don’t have to go there!”

That kind of camaraderie has existed for a long time, she added, citing the fact that when she attended her wedding shower—in 1993—it felt like walking into an audition. And that’s still true. “Even today, the women I compete with are my dearest friends.”

Jacobson has been married to actor John Lescault for 25 years. They met when both took a year off acting in order to help run the New Playwrights’ Theatre (located where the Keegan is now). She handled the administrative end—the casting, education and literary management—while he was the stage manager.

After a year of working together, they decided to go back to acting and begin dating. The return to acting was the more difficult of the two, but they managed.

Since then, they have performed together more than 15 times, playing lovers, adversaries, parents, and children, and sometimes even people who are not related at all. (The two were last seen together a few years ago in Life Sucks, Aaron Posner’s gleeful rewrite of Uncle Vanya).

Although the press release refers to Naomi Jacobson as a “DC theater legend,” I prefer to think of her as half of our reigning theater couple, much like the Lunts—Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne—of my childhood. (Curiously, one of her first awards was the inaugural Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship).

Looking back…

Naomi Jacobson grew up in California, in Santa Barbara—long before it became “fancy-schmancy,” she said—in a large family that lived just a block from the beach.

She got turned on to the theater when she was five. One of her sisters, then seven, wrote plays. The sister was invariably the star, and Naomi was the witch or the frog.

It was at around the same time that her parents took her to see Brigadoon, the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical about a town that appears once every hundred years. “I knew I wanted to live in that town,” she said. She was hooked from then on.

She went to college at the University of California at San Diego and the Pacific Conservatory then dropped out for a year of traveling across the U.S. She ended up in Philadelphia and was hanging out with her sister when her father began demanding that she go back to college.

“All I wanted was to get my father off my back,” she said, explaining the decision to enroll at Temple University and finish her undergraduate degree. “But it was the best thing that could have happened.”

After one year, Temple, which had an outstanding theater department, offered her a full three-year scholarship for the master’s degree.  She accepted.

“The Temple MFA program was rigorous and amazing. Every course was fabulous. I took voice, acting, and speech,  and I learned all the classics, including Shakespeare and Shaw.”

That rigorous training shows. In The Remains, her ability to project is particularly noticeable.

Naomi Jacobson (Trish), Glenn Fitzgerald (Theo) and Maulik Pancholy (Kevin) in The Remains. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Naomi Jacobson (Trish), Glenn Fitzgerald (Theo) and Maulik Pancholy (Kevin) in The Remains. Photo by Teresa Wood.

I asked her if she had any favorite roles. “No,” she replied. “I don’t think about roles as much as I think of working with people I like and admire. Theater, for me, is a collaborative effort.”

And today…

Her main concern now is to find ways to help actors to continue growing. “That’s the best way to strengthen the DC acting community,” she said.

In order to achieve that goal, she and Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage, have put together a nonprofit group called “Actors’ Arena.” They meet roughly once a month for classes, workshops, and discussions.  (Stay tuned for DCMTA’s story on this remarkable program, which begins again in September).

“Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Tell them to see the show!”

The critics have been saying the same thing. As a result, The Remains has been extended through June 24.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Remains has been extended through June 24, 2018, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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