"Dusk Rings A Bell": An Interview with Kate Walsh

(Me, Kate Walsh)

If you haven’t already, you’re going to have that moment. That singular moment of clarity that you know will define who you are from that day forward. You’ll think back on your life in terms of before and after this instant. Some people will spend their lives trying to recreate it while others will accept it and be able to move on and simply look back and smile.

In Stephen Belber’s mesmerizing new play, “Dusk Rings A Bell,” two teenagers shared such a moment. One 1980s afternoon spent on the beach by a young girl and a young man became the catalyst for a series of events that defined who they would ultimately become.

Molly, having just gained a new-found sense of confidence from getting over her stutter, had her first kiss and spent the next few years of her life looking for the type of love that would make her feel as pure and “at her best” as she did that afternoon. She embarks on a sexual crusade to try to fill the void that afternoon left her with, rendering her future self incredibly emotionally unstable and unavailable. Ray, traumatized by Molly’s refusal to write to him after she left to go home at the end of their date, spent the next few years of his life battling numbness and aching for something that would make him feel the way he did when he was with her.

Fast forward to the opening of the play. Now a city woman working for CNN and approaching forty, the divorced Molly feels incomplete. She remembers a letter she wrote to herself as a teenager when she successfully combated her stutter. In that letter, younger Molly divulges the secrets of how she got over her fears (her “internal stutter”), causing adult Molly to set out on a journey to her old hometown and old house to find it and gain some hope or inspiration to once again turn her life around.

While there, she runs into the also divorced and still local resident Ray. He and Molly begin to rekindle the spark that was ignited so many years ago. But when Molly learns that Ray spent ten years in prison, the budding romance of these two lonely adults comes to a sudden halt.

At eighteen, Ray and his friends crashed a college house party. They were asked to leave and in a drunken rage returned to give the hosts a piece of their minds at the end of the night. Ray stood on the side and watched as his friend instigated a fight with the homeowner and ultimately beat him to death. The audience slowly learns that it took twenty-five minutes after the murder before Ray contacted the police. In that time, he and his buddies went out for a slice of pizza.

When Molly learns all this, she is naturally stunned. She escapes back to her life in the big city to contemplate what to do before eventually returning to try to get to know Ray and understand why he did what he did. The two have undeniable chemistry and an organic connection, which worries Molly because she doesn’t like who Ray had become. She learns that much of his reasoning for doing what he did was his inability to be anything but “frozen” after their long lost beach encounter. After all, it’s not until he and Molly reconnect twenty-five years after that day that he begins to feel again. “I haven’t felt anything between our first kiss and the one we just had,” he tells her after they kiss for the first time as adults.

Raising complex social and moral issues while simultaneously weaving in a thoroughly heartbreaking, thought provoking and truly haunting love story, “Dusk Rings A Bell” is a stirring and prolific piece of theater. The critically acclaimed two person ensemble, composed of Kate Walsh (best known for her television persona Addison Montgomery on the hit series Grey’s Anatomy and her own spin-off show Private Practice) and Paul Sparks (of Broadway’s “Hedda Gabler” and the upcoming HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet), create exquisite work as these two troglodytic and tortured beings in search of finding loving human contact.

Walsh’s riveting portrayal of Molly showcased the primetime superstar in a brand new light. Directly before her final performance in the limited New York Atlantic Theater Company run of “Dusk”, she allowed me to pick her brain about Molly, her acting process, memory, and why she believes that “theater is the actor’s medium.” And yes, she is even more gorgeous in person. I couldn’t believe it either.

AN: The play presents the idea that there can be a single moment that completely changes someone and consequently defines the rest of his or her life. Have you ever had a moment that sticks out to you as life defining the way that Molly remembered that day at the beach?

KW: Definitely. At 42, I’d like to think that I’ve had several. I think everyone has moments that ultimately define who they become. Mine have never been as extreme as going to prison for a crime, for example, but I’ve absolutely had my share. These moments come and go but their effects can stay with you forever. My moments have revolved around a lot of different things but they feel too personal to talk about.

AN: A fascinating attribute of the play is how it deals with memory. Both Molly and Ray have very definitive memories of the day they spent together from their youth and attribute it as the moment that saved their lives. As the play progresses, however, it becomes clear that this moment is actually what inadvertently ruined both of them because despite their best efforts, neither one of them could ever recreate it. Why do you believe that Molly blacked out certain details of that day in order to remember it as a fairy tale?

KW: I don’t know if her leaving out certain details (like momentarily relapsing into her stutter) was intentional. I think that the playwright felt it was important to show her stuttering, at least once, so I think that was more of a revealing moment than a literal recounting. I absolutely think though that memory is subjective. We remember what we want to remember and often times things can somehow get distorted and we change the way we remember our histories.

AN: Speaking of Molly’s stutter, I was very interested in the concept of the “internal stutter” that she discusses. How exactly would you define that term?

KW: That’s a good question. I think that maybe she was making a joke when she said that. I’m not sure. Whether the internal stutter is real or isn’t real is ultimately the actor’s choice. It’s clear though that she’s certainly a strange character and the internal stutter is about her having a hard time coping with her life.

AN: One would assume that as a stage actress, you would feel pressured to manifest your characters’ objectives in large physical ways, even if only so the people in the last row can see what you’re feeling. Can you please divulge how you tackled the juxtaposition of this assumption when the script has such a heavy focus on the internal? In other words, how did you take Molly’s inner most private feelings/thoughts and manage to show them so successfully on stage?

KW: I think that was largely the work Sam Gold (the director) did. He kept saying “you really can’t be internal about this” and those were some of the key points of our rehearsal process. Early on, Paul and I were playing the characters in very internal ways. It’s very easy to play on how melancholy these characters are, but you can’t do that because it distracts from the play. Especially with Molly — she has that long monologue that opens the play and she really has to be reaching out to the audience and make a connection with them. She’s always fighting for hope. She’s always fighting for that possibility of something better and trying to not be trapped and that just wouldn’t work if it was only internal. Sam really helped me shift things outwardly to create that connection with both the audience and Ray. It has to be external because otherwise it’s just a lot of talking. You have to show the fight and you have to manifest it physically to really show who she is and have her reach out.

AN: How did you come up with the physical ticks that helped you define your character (for instance, your ear tug)?

KW: They honestly just sort of came about. Part of it was the result of standing still in the same spot for so long. Sam directed and staged the show in a way that’s very still in terms of blocking. We either stand or we sit with very other little movement. And since I feel that Molly is a very hyper character with all this energy and discomfort, I really had to figure out how those things should manifest themselves. How do these things come out? How does she deal with that internal stutter? It’s almost like she can’t get her thoughts out quickly enough. She’s always one step ahead of the next sentence or question in her head. So then you begin to think, “well, what can my body do to react to that?” which turned into her nervous habits and the little physical manifestations of her internal chaos. But that could only really happen with the contrast of what staying in one spot creates. She’s a very physical person; I’m a very physical person, so I had to really think, “how do I do this?” while staying very still and grounded — which is part of what’s so great and beautiful about this character.

AN: Similar to Molly’s letter, do you have a time capsule of your own that you created for yourself?

KW: (Laughs) Unfortunately I don’t. But one particular friend of mine from childhood has a whole collection of notes we wrote to each other in the eighth grade. She pulled out a big box of those and it was so funny to see them. We still occasionally go through those and it’s always pretty amazing.

AN: Molly makes the distinction between sympathy and empathy when trying to get to know and understand Ray. For you personally, what is the difference between these two words and do you consider them to be mutually exclusive?

KW: Yeah, I believe that they are. I think what Molly is saying when she says that is that she feels for him but that she can’t understand him. She’s saying “I feel badly for you” but the distinction for her is the lack of connection. To be empathetic is to be connected with someone you also sympathize with. For her, she just can’t connect. She refuses to. She can’t let Ray’s past go, which I actually find kind of sad — but at the same time understandable.

AN: When you first read the play, before you started working on it, what were your initial reactions to the characters? Did you sympathize with them? Empathize with either?

KW: Yeah, I did! I actually had a couple moments when I first read it where I was really judging Molly. I was thinking “why doesn’t she just get over it already?” because in life people do terrible things and the older you get, the more you realize that. Things happen. So I had a little judgment because to me, I feel like Ray had really evolved and Molly was too closed off to see that. Ray did the time and he learned his lesson. You can judge him or not, but he’d done the time both literally and figuratively, whereas Molly hadn’t. She’s kind of stuck in this cerebral, politically correct state of judgment. But that’s also the great thing about playing this character – she’s so fallible and flawed.

AN: A particularly touching moment in the play was when Molly allows Ray to pick out the cereal because it truly showed her willingness to try to let him in. Soon after, the pizza parlor is brought up and it is made clear that no matter how available Molly makes herself in accepting Ray, the presence of his actions will always linger and prevent them from really moving forward together. Going back to this idea of defining moments, what do you believe is the moment where Molly’s mentality towards Ray changes and she allows herself to become vulnerable to falling for him?

KW: It’s funny because as an actor, every performance of the play reveals something different. I remember one show when I actually had that moment in the scene where I realized that the entire time (because she never knew) that was the same pizza parlor the two of them went to. She really has this moment of “this is inescapable” because not only is the history of what happened between them totally blurred, but this one little sanctuary that was their moment becomes completely soiled. That place is the same place he went to go to eat pizza right after he did this horrible, horrible thing, you know? But sometimes when you’re in the moment with someone who you want to be with, you forget things and just think “of course! Yes, yes, yes!” and it’s not until you’re driving home when you become more aware and begin to think, “do I really want to continue with this and let it happen?”. I think Molly’s vulnerability to Ray really happened though, little by little, in that restaurant scene when they go out to dinner. The thing about her is that she really wants to connect. She’s kind of selfish and childish and she goes back, I think, to try to find a way to connect with someone. She doesn’t have anyone – she’s an orphan, she’s divorced, and she’s basically married to her job. Even though her judgment eventually gets the best of her, she goes to the restaurant really looking for that connection and it’s not until she’s actually there that she thinks, “wow, this is a real date here.” They’re both incredibly lonely characters and I think they have that moment where they’re searching for that real connection or love they experienced as kids when she was truly loving and available.

AN: Do you think Molly just used Ray’s past actions as an excuse to run from potentially finding love because she’s so emotionally unavailable?

KW: I don’t know. I think for her, his past actions are very real and she just can’t find a way to get past them. I think that moment of realization is very real and adult because she has these incredible moments with him but then steps away from them to gain perspective where she realizes she can’t deal with it. I don’t think it’s her inability to love. I’m not positive what it is, really. I try not to judge because I still have to play her, so I’m trying not to over-analyze her too much.

AN: Given the short rehearsal process, how did you and Paul create the strong relationship you had in such a brief period of time?

KW: Well I think it’s because there were no other people in the play and we were always together. There weren’t even any props or really anything except for each other. And even in rehearsals, we’d have breaks where we would look over and help each other with our lines and give each other notes and such. But it was really the material that brought us together, which is a true testament to the writer and how radiant and beautiful his characters and work are. Also Sam really showed that this is a love story. Yes, it’s about life and political and social issues, but this is a love story. Therefore we had to identify with these characters more than anything so that we could fight for each other.

AN: I found the intimate setting of this theater to be extremely crucial to the experience of seeing this show. Do you feel like it could have the same profound effect if it were to be translated to a larger venue?

KW: I don’t know. That’s a good question because I think you’re right about it being important to the play. You know, the set design was obviously made specifically for the play but also for that space as well. It’s designed as this big wave that sort of makes you feel claustrophobic because it’s right there and you can almost kind of feel it coming at you so I don’t know how that would transfer to a larger venue. But I do also think that the writing and Ray are so powerful and strong that yeah, this could translate to a bigger theater. It would just be a different experience.

AN: I respect so much the fact that an actress of your stature still does this kind of work. It’s not everyday that you see the star of a hugely successful primetime television show in a little off-Broadway play. You also still perform in improv comedy groups and recently did a sketch on HBO’s “Funny or Die,” really showing both your acting versatility and pure love of the acting craft. At this point in your career, would you say you prefer the stage or the screen?

KW: For me they feel like two totally different mediums where you can communicate different things. I love theater. I think there’s nothing else like it. It’s a very spiritual experience for me. You have such a connection with the audience and you just don’t get that on television. There are so many pros and cons for each of them, really. For me, though, I view the theater as the actor’s medium. For an hour and a half or two hours you get to be totally private and present in your body, connected in the moment, in the now, completely linked to the audience – which is so rare in today’s culture where everyone is always on their Blackberry or on Twitter or Email or whatever else. We’re all just people and for the time of the play, you’re there with each other. No outside world distractions. I truly believe there’s nothing else like that, anywhere else. Certainly not on TV, which now people can watch on their watches, so as an actor, obviously you can’t communicate the same things. But there are also a great deal of wonderful things you can do on television that you can’t really do on stage. You can focus more on the internal, which I would say is the biggest difference. Earlier you were asking how I externalized the internal and connected with the audience, and that was one of the big things to work on during my first couple of rehearsals. Sam worked with both of us on that actually. Paul is so wonderful and fabulous that of course to become his character he works on the internal. So together we were in this small, very intimate space and the challenge for us both was to really externalize. But with film and television, you don’t have to do that. You are internal. And that’s something you can capture on film but you can’t really show as well on stage.

AN: What can your viewers expect from Addison Montgomery in this upcoming season of “Private Practice” after its recent shocking and heartbreaking finale?

KW: I have no idea, I wish I had a better answer for you. I won’t know until we sit down for the table reads before we start shooting at the end of July. We’ll see what happens with Addison and Sam but other than that, I really have no idea (laughs). I’ve had such a great time here though, so I’m definitely going to miss it.

AN: And for my final question, do you have plans for any other stage work in the near future?

KW: I’m not sure because I feel like this isn’t done yet. I feel like it needs to be seen by more people. I’ve also just enjoyed it so much and it feels like it was too short of a run for it to really be over. I definitely want to do more, but right now I don’t know. We’ll just have to see! I hope my schedule allows for it because it’s been so great. I thank you so much for putting this interview together, you’re very sweet.

AN: Oh no, thank you so much! Like I told you after the show last week, this play had such an enormously profound impact on me and I kept finding myself coming back to it over the past few days. It really haunts you.

KW: It has that effect on you! It really does. It really lingers with people. When I read it, I was so completely moved by it and it truly stayed with me. And when I was thinking about whether I was going to do it or not, I thought, “gosh I don’t know” because I had all these judgments about Molly. But Ray! I totally identified with Ray! But yeah, it’s one of those plays that’ll just keep coming back to you.

AN: It truly is. I really do hope it gets extended somewhere because I feel like it’s seriously such an important piece of art and it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

KW: Yeah. I agree. Hopefully it will. We’ll see what we can do. Well thank you again so much for this interview, I’m going to go grab some dinner and then get ready for the last show!

AN: Thank you so much! Break a leg!