One of the greatest joys of being a theater critic is the memory bank that finds a spot for moments chiseled in stone.
James DeVita in "American Song" at The Rep is one of my moments. Marti Gobel in "No Child" is one of my moments. And Mary C. McLellan in "The Nightmare Room" is one of my moments.
DeVita and Gobel are well known to Milwaukee theater audiences; and though McLellan isn’t nearly as familiar, she has lurked in my memory for four years as I've wondered where she was.
I ran across McLellan in 2012 during a memorable production of "The Nightmare Room" under Chris Fleiller’s direction at In Tandem Theatre. The play was adapted from a Sherlock Holmes story and is the tale of two women, one married and the other sleeping with the married woman’s husband.
One of my favorites, Libby Amato, played the younger woman. McLellan played the married one, and I was mesmerized by both women and the play. Over the years I kept seeing Amato, but not a glimpse of McClellan. The bitter and driven character she created has stayed with me since seeing her.
Every now and then I’d think about McClellan and her performance and finally saw her at opening night of "Man of La Mancha" at The Rep this year. She said hello and, again, I thought about this spectacular performance I’d seen. I did some checking and found out she’s an Equity actor with a long list of regional and East Coast credits.
So I sat down with her over coffee to find out what has brought this talented woman to Milwaukee and why I don’t see her on stages more often.
McLellan moved to Milwaukee with her husband Dave, who runs the highly respected Kohl’s Wild Theatre at the Milwaukee Zoological Society, the largest and most successful zoo / conservation education program in the country.
"We were both actors in New York," McClellan said. "The typical story. Hustling for jobs, touring, seeing each other when our paths crossed. We worked and we learned a lot; there is nothing like being in New York for an actor. e did that for six years."
Then came family (they have two children) and the move to Milwaukee six years ago.
"I went to the Equity generals (auditions) in 2011 and got good bites from that but I faced the situation a lot of acting moms face," she said. "I got an offer from Door County but couldn’t just drop my kids off somewhere. We don’t have family here so it’s hard to just pack up and go somewhere for a show.
"So that’s what it’s like. Getting to know people, the theater community. Going to auditions. Doing commercials and voice over work. It’s what an actor does."
It’s often said that the hardest job for an actor is getting a job, and McLellan is a perfect example. Here’s an actor with impressive credits, an actor who can dance, an actor who can create the kind of magic on a stage that makes memories, and she hasn’t yet blasted through in Milwaukee.
She just turned 35, an age that would seem to be in a prime spot for Milwaukee. There are lots of young actors and lots of older actors but there are not a lot of women in that middle range.
"It’s a tough age range, to be in your 30s in the theater, both for experience and for roles," she said. "I understand that people in Milwaukee want to see local talent, and even though I’ve been here five years, I’m not local talent. I get that."
She has made friends in the Milwaukee theater community, Gobel and Angela Iannone among them. And she knows it’s a process, continuing to learn and continuing to wait.
"Life experience is important," she said. "If I had been asked to play a 35-year-old woman 10 years ago it would have been horrible. Older actors can bring a sense of gravitas to a role that is valuable and unique.
"Milwaukee has taught me a lot of patience. See the shows you can. Be the change you want to be. Talk to the directors, and there are so many here. Don’t ever, ever give up.
"I miss it so much. I do commercials and voiceovers, but that being on stage is so special."
Being on stage is special to her, but her being on stage has also been special to me, carving a place that is part of my unshakable memory. I hope that she finds a place to help create memories for theater audiences in the city.
"La Cage" is coming
One of the most anticipated openings of the season hits this weekend when Skylight Music Theatre opens the Tony award-winning musical "La Cage Aux Folles."
Starring two Milwaukee favorites, Norman Moses and Ray Jivoff, the production is being directed and choreographed by Texas ‘ John de los Santos with costumes by the flamboyant Chris March of Project Runway, who designed the costumes for "My Fair Lady" last season.
The show is about the owner of a famed drag club (mosts) and his star performer (Jivoff) and the confusion of their families, both the ones they are born into and the ones that they create. The show could well be the big hit of the holiday season in Milwaukee.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.