In the beginning, she was just a kid.
Melinda McCrary, one of the most recognizable theater actresses in Kansas City, has an impressive career that’s inextricably tied to Missouri Rep (now Kansas City Rep), its history — and, indeed, the history of Kansas City theater.
In 1974, when the Rep was 10 years old and McCrary was too young to drive, she made her professional debut as Tillie, a sensitive and intelligent girl growing up in a dysfunctional home in Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Her director was Patricia McIlrath, the Rep’s founder.
Now, 40 years later, McCrary is returning to the play in a production directed by Kyle Hatley, the Kansas City Rep’s resident director, in a production that kicks off Kansas City Actors Theatre’s 2014-15 season. Hatley is directing a KCAT show for the first time. And, in another first, a KCAT production will be staged at the Living Room, the funky downtown venue where audiences have come to expect edgy theater.
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This time, McCrary will play Beatrice, Tillie’s embittered, abusive mother who tries to undermine her daughter’s chances for success.
“I think I understand now where Beatrice has been,” McCrary said. “They say the injured injure. Beatrice’s past has impacted her, but I have a much clearer vision of mental illness. … I probably thought when I was younger, ‘Well, she’s just a mess.’
“I can make a lot more connections with Beatrice now than I did then. I feel for her. And I have to keep in mind it’s 1965. So we’ve talked a lot about what’s been going on in the world and what the options were for a poor single mother at the time.”
Then she offered another thought about her character: “I’ll tell you, Beatrice is hilarious. Whether you’re too horrified to laugh is a possibility. She just doesn’t shut up. She’s constantly working things out. As a middle-aged person I can appreciate that.”
Audiences have seen McCrary on virtually every professional stage in town. She has performed in more than 30 productions at the Rep, where for a number of years she played Belle in the annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” but she’s also appeared at the Unicorn, the Coterie and the New Theatre Restaurant, as well as its predecessors — Waldo Astoria and Tiffany’s Attic dinner theaters.
She’s also performed at regional theaters from Virginia to Arizona. And McCrary has an important theater-related day job. She’s the Rep’s director of education and community programs, a position she’s had for nine years. At the Rep she’s performed a variety of production jobs, from usher to dresser to set-changeover crew. And for the Rep and the Coterie, she’s taught theater classes for young people.
McCrary leads the artistic committee of KCAT, the nonprofit company founded by theater artists 10 years ago, and she’s chalked up a number of strong performances in that company’s shows, including last year’s production of “Picnic” and, in 2011, “God of Carnage” and Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party.”
McCrary said that “Marigolds” was one of several plays the committee had kept on the back burner for a few years. She said the real catalyst was Hatley, who has loved the play since he read it in college — although he’s never seen a production of it.
“I would have been content if we had never done it,” McCrary said. “Then what happened was Kyle Hatley came to Kansas City and he was talking about shows he wanted to direct and one of them was ‘Marigolds.’”
Hatley has directed McCrary once before — in the Living Room production of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” in which she played the evil Tamora, queen of the Goths.
“She’s ferocious,” Hatley said. “I love actors that come with ideas, ready for collaboration.… She’s a very smart actress. She understands how her role fits into the story. It’s a very explosive element to have in an actor. Mindy is one of the most fearless actors I’ve worked with. I’m having a field day with her.”
Playing Tillie in this production is Zoe London, 15, of Smithville. This is her professional debut, just as it was for McCrary in 1974.
“We auditioned 40 or 45 high school girls,” McCrary said. “She’s a very accomplished actor and singer. This is her first professional play. Her mother took a picture of her with her first paycheck.… When you’re casting a role like this you kind of panic. You wonder, will we find someone this young who can do this? We had a number of terrific options but I think we made a wonderful choice.”
Also in the piece is Daria LeGrand, who plays Tillie’s sister Ruth. Hatley has directed her in several shows, including “The Death of Cupid,” “Carousel” and “Titus Andronicus.” Hannah Freeman plays Janice Vickery, who competes against Tillie in the science fair with a particularly grisly project. And veteran actress Joicie Appell plays Nanny, a burdensome boarder who never speaks but is a major presence.
McCrary recalled that in 1974 she was officially hired as an apprentice and that apprentices had jobs in addition to performing. Sometimes she was an usher at other productions the company produced in repertory.
“The old wooden seats at the University Playhouse were so uncomfortable that they had someone make cushions and I would place them in the seats before a show,” she recalled.
“That was a terrific way to understand the collaborative element of it and to understand what other people did. I’ll never forget closing night and sobbing because it was over and hearing (the crew) tearing up the set. It felt like they were tearing up my home. I didn’t see anyone else crying but I remember Dr. Mac talking to me about how the play is over.”
The city and the theater scene were quite different in 1974.
“It think it was more of a big deal for a young person to be in a play in Kansas City,” she said. “Now there are so many young actors, including Zoe.”
McCrary now looks back at her debut in “Marigolds” and marvels that her first play had five strong female characters. It wasn’t until she became a college theater major that she realized how unusual that was.
During that production, she was the youngest person in the room. Now she’s the senior voice of authority. As a middle-aged actress she’s noticed that her memory is not as strong as it once was.
“It just happens,” she said. “And it’s a cruel joke in some ways, because it’s at a point in time when the roles you’re going to play are going to be rich and hard.… Maybe I’ll retire after this and it’ll be a book-end experience.”