Actress Karen Paisley of Kansas City is the founding artistic director of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Paisley plays the role of Margaret, the mother, in “The Light in the Piazza,” a Tony Award-winning musical about a mother and daughter’s visit to Italy in 1953. The show is at 2 p.m. on Mother’s Day, May 10, at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. Part of the library’s Script in Hand series, the performance is free, but reservations are requested, kclibrary.org. This conversation about real and fictional mothers, adoption and motherly advice took place in the lobby and the backstage area of the MET.
What is “The Light in the Piazza” about?
It’s a traditional love story, but it’s also a love story between a mother and daughter, and a love story about falling back in love with yourself.
What is the mother in the play like?
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She is extremely brave. I think a lot of mothers are extremely brave.
How is Margaret brave?
She is coming to a foreign country with her daughter, who is a slightly disabled young woman.
I guess she’s hopeful. She hopes that everything will go well, that they will be able to get away and have this really good time together. I don’t think she ever imagined the things that happen would happen, so she’s not really prepared for them when they do.
And she has to protect her daughter. And when you think about 1953 and the lack of help for parents who had special children — there were no special-ed teachers in school. No one could tell her how to help this child learn. So she’s working blindly, trying to do the best she can.
Meanwhile, the relationship with her husband has been damaged, largely because of the stress of this.
And now she is in Italy, and people don’t speak her language very well, but the lack of communication isn’t really a problem. Clara, the daughter, gets to be more herself, and so does Margaret. Ultimately, Margaret starts making decisions. At home she doesn’t get to do that, because her husband makes all the decisions.
How is doing a Script in Hand show different than acting on a stage?
It’s not less, but more.
Because the audience does more. The audience fills in what isn’t there. When you think about Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks, you realize you don’t have to have three 18-wheelers to do a play. You need a story, actors, space, light and people to watch.
Watching people watch the play at the library, you realize it is more of a lean-forward thing than a lean-back thing.
What is the most important way your mother impacted your life?
Well, I’m adopted, so how did she impact my life? She changed it drastically. There’s no telling what life would have been like had I wound up somewhere else. When you have an adoption that goes well, you are changing the course of history.
In addition to that, there was never anything I wanted to do or try that she told me was not possible.
Is there anything she told you that has stuck with you?
You know how when you are in middle school and there is nothing attractive about you? You are like the most homely thing ever?
There was this one girl in my class who was beautiful, and I was so jealous of her. I wanted to look like her so badly. And my mother said to me: “She really is beautiful. She truly is. You are right. But she’s a dogwood. She is in her spring, and she’s blooming now. But you’re a pine. And you’ll be evergreen all your life.”
That was the most important thing my mother ever said to me.